Since living in New Zealand, where there are more kinds of honey on any grocery store shelves than I ever thought could exist, I have wanted to keep bees. In New Zealand, until very recently, all honey had been organic by default. The country did not have veroa mites and very few bee diseases in general, so the apiarists could raise bees in natural conditions (sadly, this is no longer the case as the veroa mite moved into the country in about 2002). “Bees are the easiest animals you’ll ever keep on your farm,” was the typical response to my queries; thus this thought has remained with me.
Since my time in New Zealand, I have wanted to add bees to my repertoire on the farm. Keeping my own bees would be the answer to getting off the grocery store dependency for sugar. For a couple of years in NZ, I lived without sugar when I was lucky enough to live next to ‘Tony-the-Greek’ who kept his own hives and always gave me some of his honey. When I ran out of Tony’s honey, I could drive about a mile further down the road and buy more from ‘Robin-the-honey-man,’ who had his extractor not far from our house. At the time, I did everything with honey: sweetened my coffee and jams, baked with it, even used it as a skin softener.
To date, I have never been ready to accommodate bees by early spring, when you need to get organized and order them. This year I finally thought I had the time to do this, and began the task of finding the equipment and different sources for the actual bees. There is a lot to learn about bees that I hadn’t counted on. Once I began my research I was soon quite discouraged: “You’re living in a very marginal area for bees,” was the answer I got from two agricultural specialists. Further inquiries with the two local fellows who have historically (or in one case, still do) kept bees confirmed what the professionals said. These two men have either lost all their hives or all but one hive over the past couple of years.
Apparently, bees like warmer weather than we get here–they don’t appreciate our wet weather or the damp–and they need acres and acres of good fodder (think wildflowers like fireweed and clovers) in order to keep healthy and well fed. Because Bella Coola is in a rain forest, coupled with the fact that we have very little cleared farm land, there simply is not enough fodder to support a colony of bees. If that wasn’t enough to put me off, the local experience is quite the opposite of the New Zealand experience. Bees are not the easiest farm animal to keep in British Columbia–even in a better, warmer, drier location. We have a higher number of diseases and thus the amount of work involved and numbers of times you have to tend to your hive are far greater than the time I have to dedicate to such an uncertain endeavour.
So, like the growing of great tomatoes and shell out beans, bees have been crossed off the list of things I can do well, given my geography. Despite the fact that the maple and birch syrup take a huge amount of energy to extract, that is a much more environmentally suitable solution to my sweetener needs than honey. Location, location, location–it’s not just good advice for real estate speculators. Now I know why most of Canada’s honey comes from the Prairies!