Walrus Magazine: The Fight of the Bumblebee

Honey bee colonies are collapsing around the world, putting food production in danger.

..."THE HONEYBEE HIVES at the University of Guelph, in south-central Ontario, used to sit in the middle of the campus, surrounded by tall hedges that forced the drones to fly up and out of harm’s way. “Back then, nobody fussed about bees,” says Paul Kelly, the fifty-four-year-old apiarist who oversees the 300 or so hives the university maintains on and off campus. Today, the main apiary is down the road, where it has been managed out of an unassuming brick bungalow since the 1960s. In the bee yards at the front and back, the multicoloured hives are stacked higgledy-piggledy but with purpose: if Kelly lined them up in rows, it would confuse the foragers, who might then return to the wrong hive. “They can’t count,” he explains, his blue eyes twinkling. His brisk pace slows down considerably as he nears the yard.

A beekeeper’s main task, he says, is to prevent swarming. If a queen decides to abandon the hive, half of the colony will follow her, leaving the other half behind to repopulate it; until they do, the hive is far less productive. “You’ve gotta be tuned in to where they’re at,” he explains, carefully laying his hand on top of the bees as they crawl across a frame he has pulled out to inspect. He has me do the same. They feel surprisingly warm and furry under my palm, and the experience is strangely calming, not unlike patting a dog or a cat. “You have to watch what’s going on,” he says. And you need to keep the bees happy: if they feel cramped or uncomfortable, or if the queen is getting on in years, they are more likely to swarm.

Another task, which grows in importance with each passing year, and which, arguably, should be the apiarist’s first concern, is keeping at bay the twenty-nine documented pathogens that plague honeybees. Guelph operates one of the largest honeybee research programs in Canada, under the direction of Ernesto Guzman, a professor of apiculture at the School of Environmental Sciences. In Guelph’s laboratories, experts study the genetics and behaviour of Kelly’s bees, trying to understand the causes of honeybee mortality, and to breed species that can resist the stress of parasites. “The mites are terrible this year,” says Kelly, pointing to a rusty brown mite that has attached itself to the back of one of the hundreds of bees on the frame. A few cells over, a newborn emerges, dewy eyed and fluffy. “I’m worried that we’ll lose a lot of colonies this winter,” he adds." Read full article.