If you find your way to a cosy Kelowna neighbourhood where birds chirp happily as they flit between unseasonably bright blossoms, don’t be alarmed when you tune-in to a persistent buzz.
You have just found the grand poohbah of the secret order of backyard beekeepers and his stash of Victorian Queen bees.
Or not-so-secret, really. Vic Macdonald is his real name, and his neighbours know what he’s up to. They have sampled the honey he’s cultivated from his contented hives of bees and their gardens benefit from the industrious creatures he cares for.
His work is also known further afield, as around 200 backyard beekeepers from around the valley can attribute their honey making savvy to his two-day course at Bees Incorporated.
“We’re busy almost every weekend teaching courses,” the former president of the Capital Beekeepers Association said, as a wide smile crossed his face Tuesday afternoon.
If you want to solve the crisis of the honey bee, he said, you have to be “engaged,” which in this case means, become a beekeeper.
Its a notion that may make some uneasy, but it’s obviously a great joy for Macdonald who, like an exploding number of backyard beekeepers Canadawide, is outright smitten with his bees.
“When you see how they go about working, you realize we muss things up as people,” he said.
“And there’s something amazing about them. It’s therapy.”
Not just for him, either.
Pulling the top from a little wood box where 10 shelves are inserted, he breathed in deeply and pointed out that the wafts from the honeycombs are almost addictive to some.
“You’ll get some guys in the bee house, where a lot of the breeders get together, and they’ll smell the air that comes out of the beehive,” he said. “They say it clears up everything—it’s therapeutic.”
At the very least, they’re mesmerizing.
As they flew in and out of the hives Macdonald has set up in his backyard, he explained how the thrust of their lives is to serve.
“A happy bee is a busy bee,” he said, as he pointed to a bee entering a hive.
“See the yellow on their legs? That’s the pollen. They’ve gone 1.5 km away to get food and now they’re bringing it back to make honey.”
Static gathers on their hind legs, allowing bees to pick up the pollen they take home. And, Macdonald pointed out, one bee can pollinate an awful lot of plants.
“When we take the bees in the orchard, we use one full size hive with 10 frames per acre,” he said.
At Summerhill winery he has 70 colonies that busily pollinate and then, in turn, make a delightful grape honey.
When he wants basil-infused honey he takes a hive to a local basil farm, then there’s the fireweed honey and apple orchard honey.
Nature, it turns out, is doing brisk business in Kelowna.
When Macdonald talks about his bee enterprise, one can’t help but wonder if the bee crisis we hear about every day is affecting the Okanagan.
“Well, they’re not going hungry,” he said, when asked this question, gesturing toward his bees.
What has hurt the natural supply is disease.
“The varroa destructor is a problem around the world,” he said. This parasitic mite attaches itself to the body of the bee and weakens it by spreading a virus. A significant mite infestation will lead to the death of a honeybee colony.
Then, humans aren’t helping either. In his estimation there’s a lot of reckless human intervention and disease, followed up by failure to properly police the industry.
Artificial insemination practices of queen bees, which he calls “the rape of the queen bee,” fires him up.
Beekeepers looking to make a fast buck partake in practices that shorten the viability and well-being of the species.
Natural predators, like the aforementioned mite—which beekeepers can keep in check if they’re diligent—and bears aren’t a great help, either.
In good news—wasps aren’t so much a problem.
“Wasps don’t want to go into the alcove (of the hive) because the bees will attack them,” he said. “If they enter, the bees will ball up and shiver, and it gets so hot that it melts the wax, and they kill the wasp that way.”
If you see a little dent in a honeycomb, that’s what it’s from.
If you spend any time with Macdonald you’re likely to learn more than you ever knew possible about bees, their behaviours and the various industries that they feed, or feed from them.
Optimism also abounds.
Bees have brought Macdonald on adventures through his home country of South Africa as well as Brazil, Canada and the UK.
And in return for the life they’ve given him, he has faith in their ability to endure what’s put to them.
“They survive,” he said, noting in Kelowna alone he’s aware of 40 to 50 types of bees.
The question that lingers is whether that survival will be contingent on more people doing what they can to keep populations of bees in their communities with backyard beekeeping efforts like his, or if it will happen naturally.
For more information on future presentations by Bees Incorporated go to http://beesincorporated.com.