The Inspiration of Honeybees

By Gretchen Conti

Editor’s Note: A few months ago we learned about some breathtaking bee photography by Jonathan Dy. Beekeepers love to watch bees, and he’s successfully captured them so we can study and appreciate them even more. Thank you so much to his longtime friend and roommate Gretchen for sharing their story with us!

If you’d like to see and learn more about Jonathan’s work, visit

www.jonathandy.com or http://jonathandy.tumblr.com/.

In the early spring of 2010, urban beekeepers Corine Singfield and Devon Girard moved two honeybee hives into our backyard. My roommate, artist / photographer Jonathan Dy, and I lived in Strathcona, Vancouver. We had started our first vegetable garden the previous summer and we were excited by our successes.

The honeybee move took place after sunset when the bees were all in their hive. It went smoothly until the following morning when the neighbor closest to the hives expressed concern over their proximity; she wanted them removed. We agreed to put up a barrier that would prevent them from entering her backyard, but after only a couple days she was satisfied with their passivity and the barrier was no longer needed.

With the garden still dormant from the winter the bees captured all of our attention and swayed our imaginations. We would spend hours outside with the hives—I would sit next to them reading a book or simply watching; Jonathan would take photos and document the experience http://www.behance.net/gallery/Urban-Beekeeping-in-Vancouver/802861.

The presence of the hives on a warm, sunny day was all-encompassing. The buzz that radiated, sweet wafts of honey, and the drama of nature: each bee carrying out its duty, deaf to any need that falls outside the collective.

We learned about the practices of beekeeping and observed hive inspections, including opportunities to see the queen, taste the honey and learn the different tasks the worker bees took on. We were just beginning to appreciate the sweetness of a honey crop when we received an eviction notice. The landlord wanted to sell, and our adventures in hosting hives came to an abrupt end.

In the spring/summer of 2011 I joined the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (wwoof.ca) and traveled to two farms in British Columbia, both with bee hives. The first was on Mayne Island with the organic farmer and beekeeper Ron Pither. Ron is an extremely resourceful and hardworking farmer who tells the stories of a man who has lived several lives, one of them as a beekeeper.

Having operated dozens of hives at a time and a beekeeper equipment store, Ron now only keeps three hives on Varalaya Farm. His approach is as non-invasive and intuitive as any I’ve seen. He wore no veil, no gloves, and preferred to learn the health and state of the bees through observing activity outside the hive.

Working with Ron in June and July we kept a watchful eye over swarm cells and assessed the general health of the hives. He also taught me how to repair and maintain frames and boxes.

After my stay with Ron, I changed environments drastically and went to a young, energetic farming cooperative called Golden Ears Farm in Chase, B.C. It was there that I came across my first top bar hive and had the pleasure of trying to catch a swarm (an unsuccessful attempt in the end).

Though my time spent on both farms was rich with experiences and learning, I realized that to fully learn the ways of beekeeping I would have to find an environment where I was surrounded by bees.

Through friends in the Vancouver urban gardening community I got in contact with Jane‘s Honey Bees (http://www.janeshoneybees.com/), a 700-hive family operation working out of White Rock, B.C.

Our agreement is simple: in exchange for my labor, J and Liz teach me the tasks of the day, working together at first and then progressing to semi-independent work. We spent my first day assessing the strength of the hives and trying to facilitate their growth via moving frames within the boxes and sometimes amongst the different hives.

We looked for signs of productive queens and killed those that were laying drone brood, being sure to insert a pheromone stick in any hive that was left queenless. In the 32-hive yard I saw several queens, watched baby bees busting through their capped wombs and with mixed emotions squashed my first unproductive queen.

In the weeks since, I’ve continued working with Jane‘s Honey Bees, learning to anticipate and troubleshoot the wild desires of honeybees.

I had planned to get my own hives for next summer, but a local beekeeper has decided to sell his hives at a good price. With the experience I’ve gained through the years and especially with all that I’m learning at Jane’s Honey Bees I’ve decided to take on my own operation.

I‘ve purchased six hives and am looking for homes in the backyards of my neighbors and in community gardens that are nearby. I hope to be as resourceful as the honeybee and expand from simply harvesting honey to pollen, wax and perhaps royal jelly.

The first book that I ever read about beekeeping noted that honeybees are the only creatures on earth that don’t need to harm any living being (plant or animal) in its natural life cycle. Its only line of defense leads to its own death. Honeybees not only live in harmony with nature but they produce an immense amount of energy that feeds populations, worldwide. Their survival is paramount, and their existence is inspirational.

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