While vaccines are rolling out at increasing speed, it looks like the summer of 2021 will still not be full of travelling adventures.
But what about having a bee-sized adventure in your own backyard, either by becoming a full-fledged beekeeper or setting up a backyard ‘Airbnb’ of sorts for mason or leafcutter bees?
It turns out there are lots of options in the corridor for families curious about buzzers.
Pemberton’s Delores Franz Los has kept bees for more than 40 years.
She started in Paradise Valley when she taught at the North Vancouver Outdoor School (Cheakamus Centre), and they had bees.
“When I was hired to work there, they asked me to look after the farm animals and the bees. Well, I didn’t have a clue about bees,” she said.
She soon found a local mentor who taught her all she needed to know.
Then she met other beekeepers in Squamish who offered guidance.
She has been hooked on the little critters ever since.
“I don’t think there is anybody who goes and watches bees and goes into a hive and sees what bees are doing who wouldn’t be amazed at it and want to keep working with them,” she said. “We wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for bees pollinating all the food that we eat, so it is really important, but it is such an interesting job to observe them and look after them.In one hive, in the summer, there can be 50,000 to 80,000 bees, she said, and with all those bees, there is one queen.
“I am not telling them what to do. Nobody is. They are all organized. They go and find the flowers. They go and find the nectar, the pollen; they do it all. It is unbelievable what they do.”
What if I want to start my own hive?
Los said that while there has been a lot of buzz around bees the last few years, it is important not to fly in with no experience as you may get stung, so to speak, and so will the bees.
“It is good to work with an experienced beekeeper to find out what needs to be done,” she said. “It is unfair to the bees to keep them and not care for them in a way in which they can survive.”
Los has started a community beehive in central Pemberton (at Cold Creek Acres), to help folks get educated.
“This is the most important thing for anybody who is interested in starting hives — even one hive — they should go to a beekeeper and go through the hive with the beekeeper. You should not just start a hive and think that you are going to be able to do it on your own, without having experienced opening up a hive and taking out the frames and doing everything you have to do without harming the bees or yourself.”
She said if people are interested in keeping honey bees, they can buy a nucleus colony locally.
“Large beekeepers do divide their hives, and they will sell a nucleus — a package of four to five frames with a queen that is already laying. So, in those frames, there will be some brood and there will be a lot of bees. They can start with those.”
Nucleus colonies are available in late May, she said.
“It takes time for the bees to get started in the spring and lay eggs and have a large enough group in the hive to split the hive and make a nucleus they can sell,” she said.
Getting started keeping bees can cost approximately $1,000 to $1,500 with all the basic equipment and hive components, according to hiveworld.ca.
Los said the closest place for beekeeping equipment is BC Bee Supply in Burnaby. (Not ‘burn-a-bee’ thankfully.)
There are other places to shop for bee supplies in the Lower Mainland, too, she said.
Los said a yard doesn’t have to be massive to keep bees, but common sense would dictate that the hives not be kept too close to the house.
“You just need to have them spaced away, so you aren’t walking into them all the time, and they have room to fly.”
She suggests hives be kept about 10 metres from buildings.
Be sure to follow municipal regulations around beekeeping.
Once your hives are set up, Los said the upkeep involves checking the hive once every two weeks, at minimum.
You need to check that the queen is doing OK and that there are eggs and larva in the hive.
When you first start, you have to provide the bees with food.
“In addition to getting pollen and nectar to feed the queen, to feed themselves and to feed the brood, they need to build honeycomb...In order to help them do that, you feed them sugar syrup and it is two amounts of sugar to one amount of water,” Los explained. Just regular store-bought syrup.
“That helps them to get started,” she said.
What is up with bee swarms?
From time to time, during the spring and summer, locals will take to Facebook forums in search of their bees, which have swarmed.
But what is going on?
“First of all, it is natural for bees to do that,” Los said. “That is how they reproduce and get more hives in the wild — more colonies of bees.”What happens is that the queen builds up the hive, and they basically run out of space, Los said. They split off to form a new colony.
“That is why you go into your hive every two weeks or 10 days... The reason [the queen] is wanting to leave with half the bees is because she is running out of space, and they want to create a new hive.”
Beekeepers give their queen and colony more space, so they don’t search for a new home.
“Anybody who collects the swarm, it is theirs,” she said, with a laugh. “That is a good way to start a new hive.”
Not just about honey bees
The honey bees we all know are non-native species. Canada has about 800 species of native bees and none of them make honey, according to Canadian Geographic.
Rhonda O’Grady, education outreach co-ordinator with the Squamish River Watershed Society (SRWS), often brings in mason bee cocoons when she works with students.
“Mason bees are a native solitary bee,” she said. “This is one species that is gentle and easy to raise. It is an amazing pollinator,” she said.
They are typically attracted to orchards and fruit trees.
Usually, these bees come out in the spring.
Pre-COVID-19, O’Grady bought mason bee cocoons and houses (from West Coast Seeds) to work with classes at Valleycliffe Elementary.
She warns against buying mason bee houses from random retailers as they can be death traps for bees. Buy from a supplier that specializes in these types of things, she said.
“Everything about them is interesting,” she said, of mason bees.
“If this is a family kind of thing, they are a species that children can hold the cocoon in their hands, and the bees will hatch in their hands.”
The males hatch before the females.
“In the spring, we can hold them in our hand and put them out in the warmth of the sun, and you will see them move around [in their cocoon].”
It is best to get the cocoons in February or March; keep them in the fridge or another cool place until April.
“It is such a beautiful experience. The kids never forget holding a bee,” she said. “When the little males hatch, they have this little white moustache — like an old man moustache — and they will sit around on the hand. Sometimes they will poop, which is like a little gift because they haven’t pooped all winter. Then off they will fly away.”
She said she likes to do this activity with children because it connects the pollinators with food sources.
“The gifts that we receive from these tiny, tiny little things that we often don’t even think about at all, but they are feeding the world,” she said.
It is also a little creature kids have the power to kill, but which is so precious, so that is another life lesson.
“The kids get it immediately,” she said. “They are so gentle. I have never had a kid hurt a bee.”
The males don’t sting at all, and while the females can occasionally sting, it is more like a mosquito bite than an actual sting.
O’Grady said the leafcutter bee, a solitary, native bee species seen in the summer, is also fun to raise. “It is a super pollinator for our veggie gardens.”
Houses for leafcutter bees are smaller than mason bee houses and can be bought, or there are online tutorials for making them at home.
The houses should be placed in an east-southern exposure in the yard, O’Grady said.
“They need to be warm but can’t get too warm and need some sort of cover over the house to protect it from rain and from too much direct sun,” she said.
Leafcutter bees hatch in the summer. They will be flying around mid-June to August.
“Instead of using the clay to make their little chambers [like mason bees], they use leaves,” she said. “If you have ever seen perfectly cut circles in your rose leaves, or any other thin plant leaves in your garden, that was a leafcutter bee that did that.”
She said if you put out a house for leafcutter bees they would probably use it, so you wouldn’t have to purchase anything else.
“They are awesome for pollinating your squashes, pumpkins, and beans — all the summer vegetables. They will probably make your harvest double of what it would normally be.”
O’Grady said if you are going to have any kind of bees around, having wildflowers is important.
“Native species of wildflowers are really important because they have kind of adapted with each other — the flowers and the bees here know each other and they have known each other for thousands of years.”
Splish splash for bees
Whether you have bee houses or not, keeping dishes of water for bees is a kind thing to do, O’Grady said.
“Climate change has made it so hot in the summers, you often see the poor bumble bees dying of heat exhaustion on the flowers,” O’Grady said.
She puts out an old pie dish of water and adds little pebbles and rocks.
“I fill it up every day in the summer. That way, when the bees go in the water to drink, they don’t drown. They have something to climb out.”
Share and share alike
For every backyard, O’Grady believes in leaving a little part of the yard wild.
“Just let it go kind of messy in one corner of your yard. Let there be mud, let there be sticks and things and some wildflowers in there, and give it back to nature. That is my big thing. I am trying to promote, “Grow don’t mow.”
Low barrier bee fun
If all of these options aren’t the ‘bees knees’ for you, families can always become bee paparazzi and snap a photo whenever they see a bumblebee. Bumblebees are dying, and scientists are concerned.
Making Sea to Sky bees celebrities can help save them.
The pictures can be uploaded to Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science effort to track and conserve North America’s bumblebees.