YEG Bees: Backyard Beekeeping in Edmonton
by Rob Sproule
People often get wistful when I talk to them about bees. Sometimes they’ll tell me, grinning, how they remember their yards palpably buzzing when they were kids. Then they’ll tell me that they don’t hear the buzzing anymore, that their yards are quiet in the spring, and the smiles vanish.
It’s hard to appreciate how important bees are. A third of the food you eat today exists because bees pollinated it. We owe much of the fresh food we eat to them, but they don’t stop there. Honey is one of the world’s most perfect foods, and the only known food that never spoils. Sealed honey jars have been unearthed, completely edible, from ancient Egyptian tombs.
A few Saturdays ago, we drove to the family home of Jocelyn Crocker and Michael Hamilton to see some of Edmonton’s first backyard hives in action. I walked into their backyard excited, and I left inspired.
Jocelyn is co-founder of YEG Bees. Along with Chris Floden, Kevin McEwan, Matt Boeckner, and her husband Michael. Together, they educate and inspire everyone they can about the importance of bees in Edmonton and area.
Beekeeping in Edmonton
The buzz about bees is getting louder. With worldwide honey populations experiencing near catastrophic declines in the past few decades, people are waking up to how pivotal bees are to our health, our economy, and our way of life.
Grass-roots pressure for major cities to allow backyard beekeeping is becoming impossible to ignore, and cities like Calgary and Vancouver have already given eager keepers the green light. As people become accustomed to having bees in their cities, the myths surrounding them are evaporating.
In August, Edmonton launched a year-long pilot project for a select number of backyard hives. In 2015, they’ll evaluate the response and determine whether or not to alter the existing by-law.
Bees will forage for up to 5km, so every hive benefits the entire neighbourhood it’s in. If you suddenly notice more apples, sour cherries, and tomatoes ripening in your yard, you may be getting some help from down the street.
It’s important to have a water supply for them to drink. Jocelyn tells me that this was a learning curve, as thirsty bees congregated in the neighbour’s fountain. They installed a table-top “bee-fountain” in their yard and the bees stayed closer to home. She notes that adding a drop of lemongrass oil, which mimics their queen’s siren-song pheromones, attracts them.
When it comes to biting, it’s important to not let our natural fear of wasps be mimicked into us against honeybees. While wasps are stingy jerks always trying to get at your BBQ, honeybees are herbivores and, since they leave their digestive tract behind when they sting, will do anything to avoid it.
Fellow bee-keeper Matt Boeckner tells me that they do their hive inspections in t-shirts and shorts. The few times they’ve been stung is only when they’ve accidently squished them.
I always suspected that bees were magical, but it wasn’t until I learned about what actually happens in a hive that I realized it was true.
The queen is the living heart of each hive. There are several ways to acquire a queen, with one even requiring the workers to eat through a marshmallow prison to rescue her. They acclimatize to her unique pheromones as they devour the walls, so that by the time she’s free, they’re her loyal subjects.
A queen rules by pheromones unique to her. If a queen becomes too old or sick to maintain the hive, worker bees will feed select larvae with “royal jelly.” The jelly triggers the developing bee within to transform into a queen bee in a metamorphosis fit for Kafka.
My jaw dropped when Michael told me how they survived the winter. Energized by the sugars in their honey, the bees cluster in a tight clump and beat their wings furiously all winter, with the queen in the center and the outside bees constantly rotating. With sheer force of movement they keep the hive at 35 degrees C all winter long!
Knowing how resistant some people can be to changes in their neighbourhoods, I asked Jocelyn trepidatiously about the community’s reaction. She told us that instead of complaints, they’ve met friendly curiosity. The neighbours want to see what the buzz is about, and she’s happy to tell them all about bees when they invite themselves over for a look.
It’s amazing how quickly the myths surrounding bees vanish once you’re among them. I found myself completely at ease in their midst, their gentle buzzing soothing instead of frightening. Backyard hives benefit the entire community, and as I glanced at the burgeoning apple trees I got a little jealous of everyone near this home for the extra apples and tomatoes they’d enjoy.
Jocelyn left me with something that I’ve thought about a lot since that visit. She said that wherever the hive goes, it creates other “hives” around it. Like-minded people offer to help, curious people congregate, and supporters like myself emerge from the woodwork to help in any way we can.
In a world where meaningful, face-to-face connections are becoming alarmingly rare, the hives act as catalysts for people to investigate, engage, and talk to each other, neighbour to neighbour. Edmonton needs more of that.