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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada

 

March 18, 2010

 

Title: Collapse of Honey Bees on Vancouver Island / Tugwell Creek Honey Farm & Meadery

 

Producer/Host - Jon Steinman

Transcript - Tia Alexander

 

Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner - a syndicated weekly radio show produced in Nelson, British Columbia at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY. I'm Jon Steinman and for the next hour we'll be exploring the latest setback in the ongoing struggle to maintain healthy honey bee populations around the world. Every winter honey bee farmers hope that come spring, their colonies will have survived so that their businesses can remain economically viable. And with Vancouver Island receiving spring the earliest of any location in Canada, farmers there are reporting catastrophic results from the winter with some farmers having lost up to 90% of their colonies. Yet while populations elsewhere in Canada have also been hit in recent years, it appears (at least at this point), that Vancouver Island's significant losses are an isolated incident. Nevertheless these recurring losses to beekeepers have become an increasingly major issue of concern around the world for both honey producers and other farmers who rely on honey bee colonies to pollinate their crops. On today's episode we'll speak with British Columbia's Provincial Apiculturist Paul van Westendorp (apiculture being the practice of beekeeping).

 

Paul will share his thoughts on the most recent collapse of colonies on Vancouver Island and he'll share insights into what measures beekeepers are taking in response. And just as the most common and immediate responses to these types of threats are often simple band-aid solutions, we'll also examine whether the collapse of honey bees around the world is the canary in the coal mine - signaling to us that perhaps our practices of agriculture and land-use management are in desperate need of a foundational rethink.

 

And we'll also travel to Vancouver Island to meet Bob Liptrot of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm & Meadery. Bob was one of the many foodies and farmers who Deconstructing Dinner visited in the community of Sooke back in February. Tugwell Creek has in no way been immune to the collapse of colonies on the Island, with their operation having suffered an estimated loss of at least 65% of their bees. But regardless of the grim challenges facing Tugwell Creek, we'll receive some enjoyment with a tasty and fascinating introduction into mead, also known as honey wine - a product that Tugwell Creek specializes in producing. In fact, their meadery was the first of its kind in Western Canada.

 

increase music and fade out/sounds of bees

 

JS: Apiculture - a little known term, yet its role in ensuring that our current food system is able to continue to function as is, ranks up there with the importance of oil. Apiculture is more commonly referred to among us eaters as beekeeping and the practice of humans raising bees has knowingly been going on for a few thousand years, and since its beginnings, apiculture has evolved quite synchronistically alongside agriculture enabling the models of food production we see today. Despite most eaters associating beekeeping with the production of honey, honey bee colonies are significantly more important as pollinators of many of the crops ending up on our dinner plates. In Canada, as an example, one third of the foods cultivated here are reliant on what the industry refers to as "managed pollination". Whereas in the wild, flowering plants are pollinated by wild bees/insects, birds and the wind, managed pollination using honey bees has allowed for large tracts of land to be devoted to single crops as we see today. The models of industrial agriculture dominating our food system have effectively wiped out much of the natural habitat for wild pollinators that would be necessary to pollinate those foods, but more foundationally, natural systems that have not been the product of human intervention would never be home to the sheer number of flowers found on an apple orchard, a field of canola or rows of blueberries. And so, enter the honey bee, who ensures that those foods get pollinated and produce fruit or seeds.

 

Honey bees are also not native to North America. It was in the 1600's when the first honey bees were brought over from Europe and used commercially. Additional bees were introduced from Italy in the mid 1800's, and later imports came from Spain and Portugal. And while the introduction of a non-native species into North America was not surprisingly without its challenges, it's only been in recent years that those challenges have reached almost catastrophic proportions.

 

It had become a standard in the industry for beekeepers to expect a loss of about 15% of their colonies over the winter, but the colony losses have increased substantially in recent years. Last year as an example (the 2008-2009 winter season) resulted in colony losses across the country in the area of 40% on Prince Edward Island, 43% in New Brunswick, 29% in Nova Scotia, 32% Quebec, 31% Ontario, 32% Manitoba, 25% Saskatchewan, 44% in Alberta and 24% in British Columbia. That brought the national average of colony losses in that year to 34%. The previous year's national losses were 35% and the year prior 29%.

 

Now economically speaking, these previous years have placed many beekeepers into a pretty precarious position, it's just not sustainable for a beekeeping business to lose the amount of their colonies that they've been losing. The latest area of the country to be hit hard with colony losses is Vancouver Island, with producers there reporting colony losses of up to 90%.

 

At the forefront of the response to this challenge is, among others, Paul van Westendorp. He's the Provincial Apiculturist for the Province of British Columbia as part of the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands and he's been with the program for over 20 years. Previous to his current work Paul was in the same capacity for the Province of Alberta. He's worked on beekeeping programs in Uganda and has also worked for Canada's Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food's apiculture research station in Beaverlodge, Alberta.

 

Paul spoke to Deconstructing Dinner over the phone from his office in Abbotsford. He spoke about the province's apiculture program itself and he also stressed that the latest challenges facing beekeepers throughout North America in particular really began back in the 1980s when a particular parasitic mite was first introduced onto the continent.

 

Paul Van Westendorp: Much of the architectural design, if you will, of the apiculture program was established after the Second World War when a lot of people came back from the war and agriculture in the province started to expand rapidly. And so with increase food production and agricultural activities like that, beekeeping expansion went hand in hand. And beekeeping has always been, you might say, largely a complementary component to the agricultural sector.

 

And therefore, in a technical sense, we have always viewed honey production as a byproduct. It may be very important for the individual beekeeper to produce as much honey as possible but from an agricultural perspective, honey bees are far more important as pollinators of insect pollination-dependent crops. And I'm talking here of course about food production and things like this.

 

And so the apiculture program has always focused on assisting the beekeeping community to reduce or to prevent the occurrence of diseases. And this has been always very stable because there were only a very few diseases that played a significant role in all of this essentially until the mid to late 1980's. That was the time when the parasitic mites were introduced into British Columbia and they came up from the United States and that has basically altered the beekeeping industry forever. It truly has lost, you might say, its innocence. While in the past beekeeping has been somewhat of a pastoral pursuit that was somewhat romantic and the techniques that were involved quite simple, (some people would describe that as rustic) but since the mites have come into being and has chastised honey bees, today this unique form of animal husbandry (what beekeeping is) has become an extraordinarily complex and demanding activity that requires a far greater knowledge base than what has ever been in the past.

 

JS: As Paul Van Westendorp introduces, beekeeping is much more important as a complimentary sector for agriculture as a whole than it is a sector for producing honey and honey products. Paul expands on this role and he compares the size of the BC Apiculture sector versus neighbouring Alberta.

 

PvW: The total beekeeping industry here in British Columbia is small in comparison to Alberta. Alberta has by far the largest beekeeping industry in the country. In Alberta you have approximately 750 beekeepers that operate over 250,000 colonies but we have here topography and a climate that wouldn't allow that to happen. Here we have much more specialized smaller enterprises that fulfill a critical role in many of the crops that are grown out here. And we have, you know, close to 2000 beekeepers in the province instead of 750. But we here in British Columbia (beekeepers, well if I can say it) only operate approximately 40 to 45,000 colonies. But much of the emphasis is placed on pollination and to illustrate the size of it, the beekeeping industry of British Columbia has a total annual value of approximately $10 to $12 million worth of produce in the form of hive products like honey and pollen and wax and things of that kind. When we compare that with the actual number of crops that are grown in this province annually that are totally, you know, pollination-dependent, that amounts to about $250 million dollars. So we have here a ratio of approximately 1:25 or 1:22 or somewhere in there in terms of value and you have to see bees that they function as a sparkplug to our agriculture.

 

Most of the blueberries that are grown out here in the early season here in the Fraser Valley for example are highly dependent on the presence of honey bees in sufficient numbers to meet the crop pollination requirements. And of course in the Okanagan, as you well know, it's to do with the tree fruits that are grown out there. The apples and the pears and all those are very much dependent on the presence of bees and without them this is going to be a problem. So our focus in our program has always been to try to assist beekeepers to be the best possible operators and to have them operate healthy colonies and colonies that are strong enough in the spring to be rented out or to be used for the purposes of crop pollination. And of course over the course of the season (the beekeeping season) beekeepers manage their colonies largely towards honey production. And of course the honey is of course a very important income source for the beekeepers.

 

JS: This is Deconstructing Dinner. Clearly beekeeping plays a critical role in ensuring a multitude of crops get pollinated. As mentioned earlier, one third of all of Canada's food crops require pollination services from managed honey bee colonies. And so the threats posed by their significant losses each winter can mean very noticeable ripple effects throughout the food system. While the suggested reasons for the colony collapses are many and varied, the most immediate and accepted culprit has been a parasitic mite. Known as the Varroa Mite, it first appeared in Japan and the then-USSR in the early 1960s. It then spread gradually around the globe arriving in Eastern Europe in the 60s thru the 70s and then into Brazil in 1971, the rest of South America by the late 1970s. Western Europe began noticing it throughout the 1980s and then it arrived in the United States in 1987, Canada in 1989, England in 1992, New Zealand's North Island in the year 2000 the South Island by 2006 and the latest, the Hawaiian Islands in 2007. Australia is the only place in the world currently free of the Varroa Mite.

 

Here again is Paul van Westendorp - British Columbia's Provincial Apiculturist.

 

PvW: In the late 80's when the parasitic mites came into the province and we are talking about two mites. One of them is a microscopic mite that lives inside of the breathing tubes of the honey bee, of the adult honey bee, and it is called a Tracheal mite. It appears that our honey bee strains have for the most part have developed a reasonable level of resistance to this particular microscopic mite. The other mite is called a Varroa mite and the Varroa mite is a very large mite that live only on the outside of honey bees and also parasitizes the brewed of honey bees. And this is an extremely destructive pathogen. When it comes into your colony the beekeeper must do something about it and if he or she does not then there is a guaranteed outcome. And that outcome is that the colony will die. So beekeepers have in the 1980's onward have applied a number of control products that control these mites quite successfully. And keep in mind beekeepers only apply these products at a time when the honey bees are not involved in making honey that ultimately will be used for human consumption. So they apply these things, let's say, in the fall after all the honey have been taking off and in the early spring before the bees are starting to produce honey. And then they can apply these products to the bees in the hope that these mites will be subdued and will not create havoc later on in the season.

 

This has been reasonably successful for about ten years after the introduction of these mites but slowly by the year 2000 we started to see that these mites have started to develop some form of resistance to some of these products. Now, it's not just merely the term of damage that these mites have inflicted on the bees that have been of great concern but now it appears that there have also been the introduction of various other microbial organisms and I'm talking here about a specialized fungus. It's a microsporidian with the name called Nosema that is creating problems in the bees. But most importantly there have also been the introduction of a number of viruses, bee viruses. And in the past before the mites came into our population (bee population) these viruses had a tough time to get access to the bees because they have a pretty formidable hard skin. Not like all insects do, they have an exoskeleton with the skeleton on the outside so the viruses did not have an easy way of getting into the body cavity of these bees and create all the problems. But we have learnt here at the tests that we do here in the Animal Health Center here in Abbotsford and discovered that these viruses are actively transmitted by the Varroa mites themselves. In other words, the Varroa mites are not suffering any ill effects of these viruses but with their feeding habits they introduce the viruses straight into the bodies of the bees. And we believe that it is a combination of these various pathogens that has caused an even greater death among colonies than what they were initially when we only dealt with Varroa mites. And so what beekeepers can do is not that much other than to ensure that the strength and the health of the bees are as good and as best as possible. And that is in part accomplished through good management practices.

 

JS: Paul van Westendorp. Paul is the Provincial Apiculturist with the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands for the Province of British Columbia.

 

On today's broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner we're exploring the significant collapse of honey bees throughout North America with a focus on Vancouver Island, where beekeepers there are suffering from recent losses of up to 90% of their colonies. In the second half of the show we'll travel to Vancouver Island and visit Tugwell Creek - a honey farm that is also British Columbia's first meadery (mead being honey wine). But first, back to Paul van Westendorp, as Paul indicates, the primary culprit resulting in the disappearance of honey bees, the parasitic Varroa mite, is not new, it's been plaguing farmers across the continent since the late 1980s.

 

But the response until now has been more of a band-aid solution to what might be a much more foundational problem. This has been a recurring topic here on the show that our food system has evolved to be more at war with nature than it is a series of systems working with it. Instead of stepping back and questioning the very foundations of our food and agricultural systems, our approach has tended to be more of a quick fix (the latest advances in ammunition so to speak).

 

Of course our war on nature has not been possible without the help of chemicals, and sure enough in the case of beekeeping, chemical controls have become essential in order for the current systems of beekeeping to continue to function. The most commonly used miticides in beekeeping have been Apistan and CheckMite, but as Paul introduced, resistance to these products was confirmed in 2001. Prior to that discovery, another chemical - Coumaphos, was not registered for use in Canada. Instead, emergency use permits were required by beekeepers before it could be used, and only if Apistan resistance was demonstrated in the region. So here we begin to see the same cycle that we so often have seen in the food system, where instead of questioning whether the food system models themselves are in need of reform, the chemical or controls that cease to work, are replaced by another chemical one that is perhaps more toxic and the use of which might result in negative impacts that are less known and unpredictable. And so it's no surprise, that in 2002 in Ontario, Varroa mites there were too discovered to have become resistant to the emergency-use-only Coumaphos chemical. That resistance is now present throughout most of Canada. So what's next in the chemical arsenal? Well, some Canadian beekeepers, in fact many have been using the latest ammo - a neurotoxin known as Amitraz - it's used around the world on livestock and orchards and now increasingly for honey bees. But despite the product not being permitted in some regions around the world, for honey bee use, Canada did between 2008-2009, issue emergency-use registrations of the chemical and then again for the current 2009-2010 season. And so here again, the cycle continues. More chemicals, and most certainly, more resistance to them.

 

And while Canadian beekeepers were permitted to use Amitraz, in places like Washington State, the Department of Agriculture there has maintained a strong stance that prohibits its use by beekeepers. It appears that some beekeepers there have been navigating around the law resulting in a January 2010 release by the Department stating in strong words that, "pesticides containing Amitraz for control of Varroa mites in honey bee colonies is illegal. Amitraz is not labeled for use on honey bees and there are no tolerances for residues of Amitraz in honey or honey comb. Honey or honeycomb that is found to be contaminated with residues of Amitraz is subject to regulatory action by the US Food and Drug Administration and the Washington State Department of Agriculture."

 

So while chemical responses to the threat to honey bee colonies are and have been widespread, there are other non-chemical responses underway that will be touched on later on the show. But let's narrow in on Vancouver Island, the focus of the show today because it's there that this past winter saw the loss of upwards to 90% of the colonies on the Island. It's a statistic that would be even more frightening if it was a sign of the magnitude of losses across the country, and so Deconstructing Dinner asked BC's Provincial Apiculturist Paul van Westendorp if the high losses on Vancouver Island are isolated?

 

PvW: At this point in time we do not know. We don't have scientific data to substantiate a claim that says yes there's something unique, biotic let's say, and the biotic factor that has been introduced on the island and it is nowhere else to be found and therefore they have these problems, or it is a combination of various factors that may have led to this massive decline in colonies this last winter on Vancouver Island. And I'd like to point out something that maybe illustrates the difficulty that beekeepers face today in comparison to what it was in the past. To illustrate this thing about Vancouver Island we have this suspicion, but we don't know that for sure, that of course it was the Varroa mites certainly had some major role in all of this, but it could have well has been that there were other factors such as these viruses playing a role.

 

And also things such as this last summer your listeners can well remember that we had an exceptionally warm and dry summer that extended well into the fall. So what beekeepers found, at least on Vancouver Island, that they still had what we call a honey flow which is an incorrect name because bees do not collect honey they collect nectar and they make honey; however, we call them honey flow. That they were still into a late honey flow, well into the early fall. Well that had two consequences. One of them was is that they had to delay their mite control treatments later into the fall which they would otherwise have done earlier in the late summer. That could have had an impact on the efficacy of these treatments. So when you wait too long you will have different temperature regimes. The colonies are going to go into different phases or conditions and as result you may not be able to get as much of a bang out of your mite control treatment than you would have had if you would have applied it earlier. That's one thing. The other thing is a more physiological thing. Bees face a huge stress period when they have to go as a colony through the winter season. So the honey bees that are born in the early fall are the ones that are needed are basically the adult population that will winter the colony, through the winter. When the late summer is there, these bees by instinct will work very hard to collect all that nectar and that pollen and whatever is available. So they are expanding their physical resources on collecting food rather than preserving it for wintering successfully.

 

And I recall years ago we did some trials in Alberta (going through records there as well years before that) and discovered that there is a correlation between late summer honey flows or late summer honey production and poor wintering results in the winter that follows such a summer. If you have a summer that stops earlier in the season then the bees can preserve their strength better, you might say, and survive the subsequent winter far better. And it could well have been that on Vancouver Island such a scenario actually took place.

 

JS: Paul also indicated that it appears at this point that the honey bee colonies on the mainland of British Columbia have maintained healthy populations over winter.

 

Now while it's easy to point the finger of disappearing honey bees to the Varroa mite, as suggested earlier, the mite itself and its threat to honey bees is likely a symptom of a more significant and underlying problem. This too came up in my conversation with Paul. We spoke of the models of industrial agriculture themselves, as possible reasons for the disappearance of honey bees. With agricultural models having become so intensified to single crops, we've effectively demanded that bees fit into these industrial models of agriculture. In Alberta as an example, of the 240,000 colonies there, about 60,000 of them are contracted out to pollinate hybrid canola which is dependent on pollinators. With those similar demands come possible nutrient deficiencies among the bees and increased stress. And Paul explains.

 

PvW: If bee colonies are continuously moved around only to access a number of commercially grown crops, then perhaps, are they getting enough of the nutrients they are supposed to get? I mean we all know that carrots are very healthy to eat but if I only eat carrots and nothing else, apart from my skin colour, I may well get very sick. Likewise with the bees. And this is particularly prevalent in the United States where these colonies are moved all over the continent all the time to a select number of crops and it could well be that nutritional deficiency plays a role in all of this. Not only that, we also have become exceptionally demanding of our bees something that they have not been designed to do. You know, bees are not doing very well when they spend most of their lives on the back of a truck crisscrossing the country on super highways. So, maybe we apply way too much stress to these bees.

 

Now, these practices are not nearly as prevalent here in Canada and here in British Columbia but certainly these things will undoubtedly play a role as well. As it is with every organism, be it animal or human or whatever, if we apply confused stress on the organism then it becomes more vulnerable to infection and to disease. Its immune system is compromised or is weakened and it becomes then far more vulnerable to the actions of pathogens that are taking advantage of the situation. And that is one of the reasons why much of our educational efforts that are directed to beekeepers is to try to have them manage bees as good as possible by reducing stress, by applying hygienic management practices and we are also looking at the possibility (and there is widespread belief) that perhaps we have selected the genetics of bees in such a way that they have become rather sensitive to all these natural predators. Maybe we should go back to more natural bees if it is in itself a huge topic but the genetics of bees is another thing that is widely discussed and looked at. So, ultimately miticides/mite controlling chemicals are not the answer. The answer ultimately lies in relying on the natural defenses of the honey bee. And hopefully these technics will become available to beekeepers soon.

 

JS: Now beyond some of the more specific challenges facing honey bee populations (nutrient deficiencies, poor genetics, stress, parasitic mites and viruses) we haven't yet spoken of climate change as yet another possible factor. The impact of climate change on pollinators (both wild and domesticated) is such a serious concern that NASA is paying considerable attention to it. And so we have here a short clip produced by NASA that does a nice job introducing the challenges that bees are believed to already be facing by a changing climate.

 

NASA clip (music in background): Over millennia, pollinators like honey bees have evolved a well-timed dance with plants. But now, plants may be changing their tune. Spring green-up; when plants wake from winter and sprout leaves, it's such a global phenomenon that NASA satellites can see it from space. Sensors, such as Modis on NASA's AQUA and TERRA satellites, can show us how green our planet is throughout the year - and they've captured something strange. In the Northern U.S., spring green-up is starting about a half-day earlier each year. The likely cause; our warming climate. But is pollination also moving earlier? The images can't detect individual flowers, so scientists have been left to guess until now.

 

NASA research scientist Wayne Esaias spearheads a special team gathering data directly in the field. They're the honey bees in his Maryland backyard.

 

Wayne Esaias: "Honey bees are great data collectors for understanding the processes of pollination. Bees fly two and a half miles in all directions to scout for bee forage and bring back pollen and nectar. So therefore they sample a very large range of environments." By weighing the hives, Wayne can detect when nectar peaks and ebbs each year. "During the winter, the hive loses weight as they eat the honey to feed the babies and keep warm. And then when plants start blooming in abundance, the hive starts gaining weight. It can gain a tremendous amount of weight. I've had a hive gain 25 pounds in one day."

 

Wayne's been keeping tabs on his bees for less than twenty years. But in that time, pollination has moved more than ten days earlier. "That's completely in sync with what the satellite data record shows - the world here getting greener earlier in the spring by about a half a day a year…If we have a few scale hive measurements with the wall-to-wall coverage of the satellite, we can then extrapolate those scale hive measurement of when the nectar flows occur to very large areas of the country." Now, to get a bee's eye perspective of how pollination is changing in very different environments - say, deserts or mountains - Wayne's doing a little networking.

 

"HoneyBeeNet is a network of citizen-scientist beekeepers that volunteered to weigh their hives to give us more data points, to see how the nectar flows are changing in all different parts of the country." If pollination dates keep creeping forward, plants and pollinators could move out of sync. Currently, young bees are able to grow and get out on the hunt by the time plants bloom. But if plants bloom before bees are ready, both miss out. The plants don't get pollinated, and the bees go hungry. But more than just bees might miss a meal. NASA satellites can help us understand how climate change might affect what's on our dinner table.

 

"Modern agriculture requires bees as part of the production. It's as mandatory for food production as is pieces of irrigation pipe and fuel for tractors. So if we're to understand the impact of climate change on our ecosystems, we must understand how this plant-pollinator interaction is being impacted by climate change."

 

JS: This is Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly radio show and podcast produced in Nelson, British Columbia at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY. This show is heard on radio stations across Canada and the United States and we provide this show free of charge to not-for-profit radio stations with the hope that you, the listeners can help financially sustain our work. Information on how you can support the show is located on-line at deconstructingdinner.ca where today's episode is also archived. I'm Jon Steinman.

 

The subject for today has been the ongoing losses of honey bee colonies around the world with a focus on Vancouver Island, where this year up to 90% of colonies did not survive the winter. To explore this latest setback to the industry we've been hearing from Paul van Westendorp. Paul is the Provincial Apiculturist with the Province of British Columbia's Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. He spoke to us over the phone from his office in Abbotsford.

 

But to bring a more personal account of the challenges facing beekeepers on Vancouver Island, we can travel to Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery. We've been focusing quite a bit lately on the show about the local food movement in the small community of Sooke where Tugwell Creek is also located. Bob Liptrot is a co-owner of the operation with his wife Dana. They've been at their current location for 12 years and began raising bees a year after they arrived. About 7 years ago they diversified their operation and began producing mead, also known as honey wine. They became the province's first licensed meadery. Deconstructing Dinner visited the farm in February 2010.

 

Bob Liptrot: Well, we're at the top of the farm right now looking down towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca and across the way over in the clouds the United States and Washington State, the Olympic Peninsula. We have a little over 12 acre farm here with a salmon stream that flows through the bottom portion of it. We keep about 2/3 of it in an undeveloped stage to provide habitat for our bees and wildlife. We have several overwintering yards and right now it's a bit cold so the bees aren't flying too much. They need to be out in about 13-14 degree weather right now to fly and we're just a bit below that but there's a few bees flying on the heather blossoms right now I see. We have around 40 colonies in our overwintering yard at the moment at the farm here and we have 2 other overwintering yards with a similar number of colonies in those yards too. Because you can't keep too many bees in one location, we've spread the overwintering colonies out into friend's farms. One is over towards Sooke Pot Holes about 10km away from here as the bee flies and another one is at a friend's farm out behind us about 3km away.

 

I started working with bees as conscripted child labour in East Vancouver back in the early 60's. My passion with bees has continued on since then periodically having other jobs in between but always having bee hives in one place or another. We now run a bee farm which is what we do for a living. We don't have other jobs now. We're farming approximately a 100 plus production colonies so it's a very small farm by North American standards but it's very intense. We also breed bees with the idea in mind of hopefully starting to breed more mite resistant and tougher honey bees.

 

I think Southern Vancouver Island is a great spot to raise bees. We have tremendous nectar resources here, very mild climate for raising bees. Most of the country in the middle of February is still under snow or at least too cold to have bees flying. Right now we currently have bees flying and blossoms out and so it's a good place to raise bees. We have some very interesting nectar that lend themselves to good honey and even better mead once it's converted.

 

Nectars that we primarily find around here are blackberry (first in season); Eurasian blackberries. We also find Salal blossoms, trailing blackberry up in the mountains (wild blackberry) and we get quite a lot of fireweed later in the year and that's probably the largest percentage of our crop.

 

JS: Bob Liptrot of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery. Located on Vancouver Island, Tugwell Creek has not been immune to the challenges that have plagued beekeepers on the Island over this past winter.

 

BL: The challenges are always many and varied. We currently on the Island are going through quite a lot of bee loss right now and largely that's been attributed to a very destructive mite called Varroa Destructor, oddly enough. It is an introduced mite. It's been in the province and in Canada in general since the early 80's. It has caused tremendous losses. This year alone on the southern portion of Vancouver Island, I would say the losses will come out somewhere around 85% of every colony of pretty much every beekeeper will be destroyed. This year has been particularly bad for us. We've lost probably around 65% of our colonies possibly more, the wintering season isn't over yet. It is without a doubt an issue that is a major economic hardship for us as with any beekeeper. You can't expect people to keep losing 65 or 75% of their business and keep farming indefinitely. That's why we're looking more intensely at bee-breeding programs and better livestock management, better nutritional management and just working towards that end rather than the negative side of continued miticide use and chemical use.

 

JS: As introduced earlier on the show, honey bee colonies are much more valued for their role as pollinators of food crops (orchards, oilseeds, vegetables), but according to Bob Liptrot, Vancouver Island is not as affected by the loss of pollinators as other more intensively farmed regions.

 

BL: The real pollination end of it on the island isn't a huge thing. There's not a lot of crop pollination going on compared to the Prairie Provinces or Northern BC where there is a lot of industrial intensive agriculture but we do pollinate orchards on the island here.

 

Lots of berry crops are pollinated. There's also a certain amount of cranberry pollination which goes on and of course there's the overall general pollination that even a backyard beekeeper provides with one or two colonies to the overall neighbourhood for people growing all sorts of different types of fruits. Right from tomatoes and squash all the way on up through to the big old family apple tree in the backyard. Without those colonies being present that pollination ceases to exist. We then fall back on natural pollinators more and in a lot of cases natural pollinators are also suffering due to the overuse of pesticides and the loss of habitat.

 

JS: This is Deconstructing Dinner. We're hearing clips from my visit with Bob Liptrot of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery located in Sooke on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Similar to my earlier conversation with Provincial Apiculturist Paul van Westendorp, I also spoke with Bob about the reasons for the disappearance of honey bee colonies on the Island. While the Varroa mite is the direct culprit, Bob too believes there are some more underlying concerns that have led to the challenges facing Island beekeepers there and throughout North America.

 

BL: It's a multitude of reasons. There's no doubt there is a lot of contributing factors. It's not as simple as just one particular problem. We have a lot of intensive beekeeping going on in order to pollinate the intensive agricultural processes that we currently are embarked upon. That intensive beekeeping is primarily wrapped around pollination which for the North American industry alone is over a 40 billion dollar industry. It encompasses all sorts of crops and it uses well in access of three million colonies of bees every year to pollinate crops from as far south as Florida and as far north in the Peace River area of British Columbia and right across the prairies and into Ontario and of course the Maritimes as well.

 

So all of these intensive agricultural crops are dependent upon migratory beekeeping processes and of course those migratory beekeeping processes not only move bees around but also parasites and pathogens that come with those bees and that of course help to spread the problem around quite a bit.

 

JS: Bob Liptrot agrees that until now the response to the mite problem has been met with a silver-bullet approach with the hope that chemical miticides would solve the problem. As mentioned earlier, these efforts while once effective are no longer, as the mites have developed resistance to the chemicals. Instead Bob believes better bee breeding programs are necessary to encourage mite-resistance. But even more foundational, I asked Bob if he believes the collapse of honey bee populations might be the canary in the coal mine, warning us that the models of agriculture themselves that the bees help support, are themselves the problem.

 

BL: It's no doubt an issue that does lead one to think that we might be canary in the coal mine in this process. We definitely are running into other issues such as climate change. We're running into perhaps the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, the overuse of particular crop programs on certain types of land that are perhaps marginal at best for those crops. Perhaps we need to rethink our agricultural processes in some cases and take a step back from the intensive models that we're currently embracing and look at something a little less intensive. The same holds true for the beekeeping industry. Perhaps we need to step back from the operations that have 30 and 40,000 colonies and travel around the countryside pollinating this, that and everything. It's a difficult process though to step back from something that has been going on for many years and in some cases decades. It's not going to happen overnight. Typically we find in countries where there is a little less industrialized agriculture we also find in the beekeeping industry a little less issues with things like colony-collapse disorder. So there may be something to the simplification of agriculture. Most certainly keeping things in agriculture a little less intensive will also help to provide greater habitat for other pollinators, which are currently under threat as well.

 

JS: Another issue that has not been raised on today's episode and is one deserving of more attention perhaps on a later show, is the decline in natural wild pollinators that have resulted in an increased reliance on managed pollination such as the honey bee colonies trucked from farm to farm. Bob introduces this concern.

 

BL: Prior to intensive colony management that we're relying on now for beekeeping and pollination directly, we were more reliant upon bumble bee species, upon certain wasp species, certain solitary bee species, and even things like hummingbirds, moths, even bat species. With the intensive models of agriculture that we're embracing and the intensive land use that goes along with it, we've lost a lot of natural habitat that those species depend on and as a result we've lost a lot of those species, or they're on the decline, and therefore that makes us more dependent upon artificial species or farmed species like the European honey bee that most beekeepers use.

 

JS: This is Deconstructing Dinner. If you've missed any of today's one-hour feature on honey bees, today's episode is archive on-line at deconstructingdinner.ca and posted under the March 18th, 2010 broadcast.

 

And to close out our focus on the collapsing populations of honey bees, it's worth touching on how farmers who rely on honey bees to pollinate their crops are responding. Last year as an example there was a substantial shortage of pollinators in British Columbia, and farmers located in the Fraser Valley, the Okanagan Valley and the Creston Valley instead relied on large colonies that were trucked in from Alberta. Certainly this acted as an emergency response, but no doubt is not a response farmers in BC should feel comfortable relying upon for the long-term.

 

But let's move on from the challenges facing beekeepers and focus more on what we eaters get to benefit from as far as beekeeping is concerned. Of course we do benefit from the crops the bees are pollinating, but we also get to enjoy honey, honeycomb, and products like mead (also known as honey wine). Tugwell Creek happens to be British Columbia's first licensed meadery and we'll learn more about that in just a moment. But first, the honey itself, Bob Liptrot shared some interesting information with Deconstructing Dinner about the differences between generic honey found on grocery store shelves and those found from individual small-scale operations. Here again is Bob Liptrot.

 

BL: generally when people are buying honey of a generic sort of grocery store shelf with generic packaging on it, they are purchasing honey which is blended quite often or they're purchasing honey which is imported from offshore resources such as places like China or some areas like South America where there may be slightly different standards for honey production and it is being imported through honey packers. There is certainly food security measures in place through Canadian Food Inspection Agency but they're quite often importing honey which may not be of higher quality and that's one of the reason why it gets blended by honey brokers and honey packers and shipped around the country for various uses. You pay for what you get. When you're buying honey from a small producer you're generally buying honey from somebody who is intimately acquainted with what the bees are foraging on. Quite often you're buying varietal honey and honey which is of a vastly superior quality to the generics of blended from many different sources.

 

JS: Tugwell Creek markets a number of honey products, beeswax, honeycomb, candles, but they're increasing focus over the past seven years has been mead (honey wine). In 2003, Tugwell Creek became Western Canada's first meadery and the results have been very successful. Bob Liptrot introduces Deconstructing Dinner to this ancient beverage and he pours us some samples of their meads.

 

BL: Mead is the oldest started fermentation that is a lot of things to a lot of different people. In some parts of the world it is a very light ale like product. In other parts of the world it's more like a fortified liqueur. We make it as a wine style. It can be made as cider style. There is no end to variation on it. Our main focus, and my family's main focus over the last 50 or so years of making mead has been to make it more as a wine style although we do do some of the other types as well.

 

Our family's been producing several different types of mead over the last 50 or so years and I've been involved in that part of it for probably closer to 30 years now messing around with different types of mead, experimenting with different formats. We currently are producing around 5 or 6 different types of mead.

 

The types of meads that we're pouring right now are melomels, which are a berry based mead using fruit which we produce right here on the farm. We also pick fruit from around the farm here too and we also produce metheglins which are a spiced based mead and we have a couple different types of metheglin that we pour. The one that is being poured right now which is a sparkling metheglin and very old, authentic, Old World style of mead that goes back into the 1560's and is based on very old recipes from the Dutch East Indies Company books.

 

Basically what we're doing to get a mead is bringing a certain amount of honey in from our production line. Typically in a given year we'll produce in the neighborhood of around 2000 kilos of honey. In an average year 2 to 3000 kilos and we dedicate a percentage of that of course to making mead for us. And the styles of mead we make we usually put anywhere from about 0.2 to 0.3 of a kilo of honey into every litre of mead that we produce. So we're using quite a lot of honey and I think that helps to set our meads apart from other meads on the market. We're also using some fairly intensive wine techniques for fermenting and one of the things our family's been doing for years is also fermenting using French oak barrels and aging in French oak barrels which I think adds an interesting and complex to mention to mead production. Some of our meads will typically age out to well beyond 25yrs while some others are intended to be consumed and enjoyed within the first few years of their life. We've recently released our first vintage for public consumption. It's not the first one we've made but the first vintage for public consumption of a fortified mead using our own distilled spirits from mead itself.

 

Classically, most people think of mead as being very thick and viscous, syrupy liqueur like product and it certainly can be that way. I typically don't make meads that way too much. It's not something that the general public consumes too much. I think they prefer lighter styles of mead in this part of the world so our meads are made with the same specific gravity as you would expect from any table wine. Most of our production now is ranging in the dry to off dry and it's more than suitable for enjoying with casual dining or with formal dining.

 

The first mead I'm pouring you here is our Harvest Melomel and the Harvest Melomel is a classic mead that we've been producing for many years in the family. It's a very light, fruity style of mead. It's a very low key mead made with three different berries which we grow right here on the farm. We always use the same three berries in production. That's Marion, Logan, and Gooseberry but we use Wildflower honey in this. For us on the Island, Wildflower honey is primarily salal and fireweed.

 

So this next mead that is being poured is our Wassail Gold and Wassail Gold is a very delicate sparkling mead and it's made with an old family recipe that goes back over 50 years in our family. It is made with Fireweed honey. We use 6 different spices all from the West Indies, and aging and fermenting in French oak for over 14 months to produce a very delicate light sparkle. This is one of the only meads now that we do in an unfiltered style in keeping with its heritage of the 1560's roughly. The date is a fairly known factor for us because it was extracted from a recipe that was recorded in the Dutch East Indies Company books. So we've modified it very little in the course of 50 or so years that it's been made.

 

This mead I've just poured you is a Brazen Blackberry. Brazen Blackberry is an interesting mead. It's one of those meads that kind of goes full circle for us. We have made it to an off dry level about six months aging in French oak barrels and it's made with local blackberries that are picked around the hedge rose around the farms here and lots of Blackberry honey. So from the point of view of being a blackberry mead it catches blackberry in all stages. It's interesting that the bees are not only getting the Blackberry nectar and producing honey from it but in the process of doing that and collecting blackberry honey for our production they're setting the fruit for later that we go to pick and make the wine from. So it's a nice mead, a little more serious coming in at around 14% alcohol. It's something that typically gets paired with the main course of a meal.

 

JS: That was Bob Liptrot here on Deconstructing Dinner. Bob is the co-owner of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery located in the community of Sooke on Vancouver Island. You can learn more about their operation at tugwellcreekfarm.com and be sure to check out our website for today's broadcast at deconstructingdinner.ca and the March 18th, 2010 episode where we've posted a wealth of resources, images and additional audio all related to today's one-hour feature on honey, honey bees and mead.

 

sound of bees

 

ending theme

 

JS: And that was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner produced and recorded at Nelson British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman.

 

I thank my technical assistant John Ryan. The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson area resident Adham Shaikh.

 

This radio show is provided free of charge to campus community radio stations across the country and relies on the financial support from you the listener. Support for the program can be donated through our website at deconstructingdinner.ca or by dialing 250 352 9600.


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