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The buzz about bee misconceptions in NOTL

George Scott, president of Niagara Beeway and Owen Bjorgan discuss misconceptions about honey bees in Niagara. (Owen Bjorgan) A loss of honey bee populations is occurring while conversations about these benevolent pollinators is increasing.
George Scott, president of Niagara Beeway and Owen Bjorgan discuss misconceptions about honey bees in Niagara. (Owen Bjorgan)

A loss of honey bee populations is occurring while conversations about these benevolent pollinators is increasing.

Standing out back of Red Roof Retreat on the outskirts of Virgil, I met up with George Scott, the president of Niagara Beeway, which is focused on protecting native fauna species and restoring native habitats in Niagara. 

It took one hand shake, and within the blink of an eye, I was fully suited up in a beekeeper’s suit hovering over one of the boxes donated to the property. Over the years, and within the bounds of private property, Red Roof Retreat has been fortunate to undertake wetland restoration, forest planting, and the installation of a new bee box without many bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and my family is grateful for that.

However, with the recently procured bee box located on the “back nine” acres, which includes wheelchair accessible trails, there was a surprising amount of scrutiny over the concept. 

I didn’t need to cut to the chase with George. His passion flew through me like a bee riding the wind.

When I asked him what he would say to those who feel concerned about managed honey bees being an introduced species from Europe nearly 400 years ago, Apis mellifera, he pointedly discussed how it is essentially the least of our worries. 

“It is absolutely not true that these honey bees are competing with native bees. The cycle of honey bees is different from native bees, and the same is for food sources.” 

Although honey bees are not native to the North American continent, they play a historic and currently vital role in pollinating our local forest species, meadow plants, and even our manicured landscapes such as orchards and gardens.

George estimates that approximately $1 billion of ecosystem services come from Apis mellifera and its various subspecies in Niagara Region alone — largely on the backbone of pollination abilities in a landscape denuded of its original habitat and insects. In other words, here we are, and it is certainly better than nothing, considering the historical wreckage of Niagara’s biosphere. 

“There are bigger issues,” George continues, “like habitat loss for our original pollinators.” 

This is where George and I approach the beehive, like a couple of spacemen about to investigate a rock on a newfound lunar surface. We are aware that the Niagara Region and NOTL have lost more than 90 per cent of original habitat coverage, and that we continue to hack away at an ecological system that sustains our society and pollinators alike. 

George pulls the lid off the top of the box with his bare hands, and tells me he is looking for female honey bees, that make up the vast majority of the hive’s population, sometimes up to 90 per cent of the population. And they do all of the work to keep it functioning.          

Males are bigger, don’t have a stinger, and spend their lives doing barely any work. They are biologically fixated, consuming honey, and waiting for the opportunity to mate. Readers, let the jokes roll! 

Knowing that some people see honey bees in common settings, some may not believe that population declines are unravelling. George informs us of a stark reality that hits close to home. 

“There are large areas of Niagara where there are no bees,” he explains. Habitat loss is one factor, but George wanted to set the record straight on the misconception that farmers are to blame. 

“Urban areas contribute 12 times the amount of toxins and chemicals compared to rural environments. The girls of the hive are picking up the toxins and it is killing them. The chemical compounds of our past sins are now combining with our current chemical sins, making more deadly compounds.” 

By sins, George is referring to previously used, and now largely banned, chemical compounds that have now recently combined with our current regulated products to create a molecularly destructive soup to all pollinators of the region. 

“Our urban gardens are concrete islands, where predators have native pollinators and honey bees on a platter,” he explains. Combined with habitat loss, George also paints a picture of way bigger fish to fry.

I asked him how we can address this, and what stands in the way of such change. 

“We (beekeepers) would like to see more representation on the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA).” He continues. “Beekeepers have been been trying to transfer their technology into the NPCA for some time,” as well as other layers of government. 

Ecologically speaking, we are only left to work with what we are currently given. We cannot change the past, but we can start today to create a better tomorrow. 

As a past Rotary Club exchange student, I was fortunate to have spent many months in a bee suit in Australia, learning about the biological, ecological, chemical, agricultural, political, and cultural world of honey bees, which benefit both society and our local ecosystems. Even if they were originally from Europe, just like most of us. Think about that before we label this insect as an invasive species. 

George holds up a sleeve from the beehive and explains the intellect and language behind Apis mellifera, which I am forever learning about, considering the hive’s appreciable complexity. 

“The queen is the motherboard, from threats, to ventilation, and temperature. The hive speaks in braile, audible sound, pheromones, tactile bee dances, frequency, and written language patterns we see on the combs.” He also highlighted the complexity of how honey bees can respond to threats such as tapping on the bee box, from a wood pecker, or perhaps the thumping and personal space invasion of a black bear. These insects are hardwired to be intelligent as a society, almost like our own, although I often question the collective “hive mind” of our own species these days. 

With this complexity in mind, look no further than our own species, as to who the real invasive species is. 

We need honey bees, no matter how much it stings to think about it.