Dennie Fornwald helps Reginans mind their own bees’ nests
HOBBIES by Gregory Beatty
Introduction To Backyard Beekeeping
Bees have been in the news a lot lately. Biologists report that numbers are plummeting throughout North America. Colony Collapse Disorder is the scientific name for the situation and pathogens, parasites, pesticides (specifically, neonicotinoids) have all been identified as possible causes.
Bees play an important role in food production as pollinators, so CCD is a serious problem. One out of every three bites of food you take, in fact, is credited to them.
Beekeepers typically rent their hives out to farms to pollinate crops that run the gamut from fruits, berries and vegetables to tree nuts such as almonds. But when CCD hits, beekeepers lose between 30 and 90 per cent of their hives. So that’s a big blow to agriculture.
Then there’s just the tragedy of seeing a fellow animal species, especially one as highly social, hard-working and hugely useful as bees, struggle.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. On the urban front, beekeeping is thriving. And on May 7, Central Library hosts a primer to the hobby, as part of a series devoted to DIY skills in the local economy.
Dennie Fornwald is the presenter, and she’s been backyard beekeeping for five years at her Heritage area home. Fornwald got her start after attending a workshop at a sustainability fair in Craik.
“It wasn’t specifically about backyard or urban beekeeping, but they had an observation hive and a bunch of information and they made it sound like you could get going without a lot of experience, time or money,” says Fornwald.
Fornwald credits the Regina and District Bee Club (reginabeeclub.ca) for helping her get set up.
“That’s where I ordered my nucleus colony and I signed up for a mentor, too,” she says. “That gave me some hands-on experience before I got my own honey bees. I also read a lot about it.”
While there are rules against urban agriculture in Regina, the Saskatchewan Beekeepers Association (saskbeekeepers.com) defines anything less than 50 hives as hobby, says Fornwald. “Not that I’d ever try to have 50 hives in the city. But certainly with one hive I’m a hobbyist, so I think I’m okay.”
When Fornwald started beekeeping, she recalls, she didn’t know how her neighbours would react.
“I was nervous at first to let people know because I didn’t want them to report me. I’d heard what happened to the urban chicken farmers and was afraid the city might say no. I did speak to all my neighbours though, and nobody minded, so after the first extraction I went around with honey for everyone.”
The basics to get started, says Fornwald, include a hive, a smoker (to calm the bees when you need to enter the hive) and a small pry bar hive tool.
“A suit is good for beginners, but you don’t have to have one — although you usually have a veil and gloves. The Bee Club has an extractor. It’s pretty big, and it would be expensive to buy, but you can rent it by the day and use it to extract the honey from the comb.”
Fornwald lives in a mature Regina neighbourhood and describes her backyard as “sheltered”. To prepare a backyard for bees, she says, a water source is vital. “You don’t want to have bees pestering neighbours that have a leaky tap or whatever.
“We also planted a clover lawn and all sorts of bee-friendly flowers but the bees ignored them and went pinging off into the neighbourhood. Instead, we had tons of bumble bees, which was fine because I’m very much in favour of helping wild bees.”
Urban beekeeping, in many ways, is superior to rural beekeeping, Fornwald says.
“Blossoms tend to pop up earlier, and people keep plants alive in the fall, so bees have pollen sources for a little longer. There’s usually better diversity too, because agriculture in southern Saskatchewan is mostly mono-cropping.”
Urban bees, conversely, sample all sorts of flowers, fruit trees, berry bushes and vegetables. And that makes each batch of honey they produce unique.
“You can learn which [plants] bees have visited by looking at the pollen on their legs,” says Fornwald. “And you can taste it in the honey. Even a beekeeper five blocks away, their honey will look and taste different because of the diversity of the blossoms.”
Fornwald averages 275 pounds of honey a year from her hive — although last year that dropped to 175 pounds because of a late spring and weak hive.
In the wild, bees hibernate in ground cover to survive winter. Fornwald prepares her bees for winter by feeding them and wrapping the hive in insulation with proper ventilation. “But winter loss is pretty common,” she says. “In Saskatchewan, it averages 25 per cent. People hear about colony collapse, mites and other things. That’s a reality here too.”
Fornwald’s lost her bees twice and had to order a new nucleus colony from a local commercial beekeeper.
In five years, she volunteers at the end of our interview, she’s been stung eight times.
“I take the blame for at least five,” she says. “If I pull a weed and there’s a bee on it, or I’m walking barefoot on the lawn and there’s a little lost bee and I step on it, she’ll sting me. But none of my neighbours have ever been stung.”