To Bee or Not to Bee
// Yette Gram

There is a plum tree in my parents' back yard, and most years we get a good enough crop to leave us with a freezer full of plums all winter. This year was different, however: the blossoms arrived well before winter was fully over, and when the time came to look for fruit, we had none. The spring had been too cold, and the bees hadn't come.

Bees are vitally important to almost all growing things. Without the pollination they provide, many plants, like my plum tree, are unable to bear fruit. Cold weather is not the only factor that reduces the number of pollinating bees, though. The world population of bees has been steadily declining in the last few decades, most sharply in the United States. A team of entomologists from the University of Illinois found that four of the eight species of bees they studied had declined in population by up to 96 per cent. Though scientists are still unsure as to why this is happening, some factors under consideration include disease, lack of genetic diversity, pesticide use, and loss of habitat.

Loss of pollinators is not a welcome prospect for gardeners, farmers, or environmentalists. It is estimated that one third of the food we eat and 90 per cent of the world's commercial plants depend on pollination by bees. That includes most fruit, vegetables, and nuts, as well as soya beans, coffee and cotton. Those are all things that, without bees, we would not be able to naturally produce anymore.

Bee diseases and lack of genetic diversity aren't really things that regular individuals can fight on their own, but pesticide use and habitat loss are. One of the easiest ways to help is by planting flowers in your garden that are native to the area you live in. Native bees will recognize these flowers, and they will also attract butterflies and birds. Eliminating personal pesticide use in your garden is another way to encourage bee traffic and pollination.

Groups like the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) have taken encouraging bees one step further. In 2007, the EYA started a program called Park Pollinators Paradise, through which they hoped to both improve the habitat for native pollinators in Vancouver and to educate Vancouverites about the importance of these insects. The project began by putting bee shelters on private property across the city, and later expanded to include public spaces, such as parks. The EYA has been focusing on the Blue Orchard Mason Bee (Osmia lignaria), which is a native bee that is both an effective pollinator and non-aggressive. The EYA is also teaching youth how to keep bees for honey production. Young people are learning that honey does not just come from a plastic jar at the grocery store, but can actually come from their own backyards.

Beekeeping has been happening all over Vancouver for years, despite laws that existed until 2005 banning beekeeping from the city. It was the criminal activity of choice for otherwise lawabiding citizens, and the City turned a blind eye for the most part, only prosecuting if neighbours complained. Now, the law has been changed to allow for up to two beehives on any residential property, with some restrictions to ensure that safe and proper care is given to the hives. This includes putting high fencing or hedges near the hives so that the bee flight path is above head-level, and providing a water source near the hive so that bees don't go searching for water around the neighbourhood.

The policy report that first recommended the law change also addresses the issue of bee stings, which, when a hive is properly managed, are quite rare. Bees have been domesticated and bred for gentleness, as well as hardiness against winter cold and disease resistance. The disease resistance doesn't seem to have worked very well, however, as the bee population keeps declining, but the gentleness is certainly apparent when one compares a bee to a wasp or a hornet.

On top of the practical value that urban beekeeping has, there has also been noted the educational value. Bee hives can assist in teaching the reproduction cycles of plants, as well as how food grows. With the city helping to support pollinators, and initiatives like the EYA helping to bring about the change, Vancouver will hopefully start to bloom and bear fruit again. Maybe if we're lucky, I'll even get a harvest of plums next year.

// Yette Gram
// Illustration by Miles Chic

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com