alive but not thriving, our first hive inspection

We opened up the hive this afternoon for the first time since the winter.  We’ve been seeing a fair bit of activity coming and going from the hive for the last couple of weeks, so we weren’t too worried about the hive as a whole, but were looking forward to seeing what had happened in there over the last seven months.

Our top-bar hive with the lid removed

Our top-bar hive with the lid removed

It looks like we’ve had some moisture problems with the hive, especially near the back.  There was quite a bit of black mould on the bottom of the hive and some bits of mould on the empty combs that were near the back of the hive as well.  There were a handful of dead bees and some other litter on the bottom, so as we pulled combs out, we scraped at the bottom of the hive to clean out a lot of that mess.  There weren’t many bees on the combs near the back and we pulled any of the empty combs that had any mould on them out and set them aside. According to “The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture”, mould issues on the combs are common in the spring (especially after damp weather) but usually clear up on their own once the weather warms up (A.I. Root, 1978), but we didn’t read about that until afterwards.

You can see the mould in the bottom and the corners of the hive

You can see the mould in the bottom and the corners of the hive


Some mould on an empty comb that we pulled out of the hive

Some mould on an empty comb that we pulled out of the hive

Another comb with some mould on it

Another comb with some mould on it

As we moved through the bars, we saw more and more bees, which is a great sign.  Overall, we estimate that we have around 5,000 bees which would have been close to what we started with last year. We did see a few troubling signs, though.  On one bee, we spotted a clearly visible mite.  We did only see the one bee and were carefully checking all of the others, but it is likely that we’ll see more mites as we go along.  Hopefully the bees are able to keep them under control on their own; if not, we’ll work on culling drone brood (mites’ favourite breeding grounds) and maybe switching our bottom board to a screen (to help keep mites out once the bees have flicked them off of their backs).

A mite on the back of a bee - 5 down from the top of the chain of bees

A mite on the back of a bee – 5 down from the top of the chain of bees.  Click to zoom and you’ll see the nasty little red mite.

Another sign that is not encouraging is that we saw between 10 and 20 bees with Deformed Wing Virus.  This is a really upsetting thing to see in bees as the virus causes the bees to be born with almost no wings.  DWV infected bees usually die quickly and are often expelled from the hive (Highfield, et al. 2009).  While the virus is often not the cause of an entire hive collapse, it is implicated in conjunction with varroa mite infestations and thought to be transmitted through the mites as well as through worker bee saliva.  Most often, the bees can clear themselves from this infection, but it is thought to be the potential downfall of hives over the winter, though.  There have even been studies that have shown that bees infected with DWV have learning deficits.  Bees will have impaired associative learning and memory formation (Iqbal and Mueller, 2007).  We hope that our bees will kick this virus, but in the meantime it is pretty heartbreaking to see bees with no wings crawling around on the ground.

Bee with Deformed Wing Virus near the bottom of the photo

Bee with Deformed Wing Virus near the bottom of the photo

Some positive signs were also present in our hive.  There was plenty of honey left over in combs that we had left full of honey back in October.  There were no signs of starvation, which would usually present with dead bees with their heads inside the comb (reaching for that last drop of honey).  There were really nice looking stores of pollen and new brood in uncapped cells.  We also saw the queen surrounded by bees on one of the combs with new brood!

Comb with honey from last year

Comb with honey from last year

For general hive spring maintenance, we had a goal of pulling out some of the oldest comb that had come from the nuc last year and was still on a plastic frame.  It is generally a good idea to cycle old comb out of the hive as old comb starts to darken and can host additional bacteria or viruses that isn’t desirable in the hive.  We were able to pull three of the four old combs as they were almost empty of any nectar, pollen or brood and none had many bees on them.  We left the fourth comb as there was new brood cells and a good stock of pollen stored.  Finally, we inserted some new top bars and moved the brood nest closer to the front of the hive.

We hope that with the “spring cleaning” the bees will be able to grow their hive and overcome any nasty health issues that are lingering from the winter.  We’ll be doing some brainstorming this season on how to deal with the obvious moisture issues that must have been present over winter and see if we can do a bit better for next year.  Thank goodness for the dandelion flow that has started in Calgary – our bees should have no problem finding a plentiful source of nectar and pollen for the next few weeks.

How have your first inspections gone?  Any advice as we get through our spring sniffles? Leave us a comment!

Works Cited

  • Root, A.I. 1978. The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. The A.I.Root Co. (page 194)
  • Highfield AC, et al. 2009. Deformed wing virus implicated in overwintering honeybee colony losses. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 75:7212–7220.
  • Iqbal and Mueller. 2007. Virus infection causes specific learning deficits in honeybee foragers. Proc. R. Soc. B 274:1517-1521.
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the buzz, as of late…

I’m not sure if any of you out there have noticed it, but there have been tons of news articles over the last couple of weeks that discuss the state of bees on our planet.  From pesticides to  colony losses and potential food issues, bees are taking centre stage in the news and hopefully the awareness of how critical all of our pollinators are is spreading.

First came the big news from Monday, April 29, that Europe has banned neonicotinoid pesticides for two years in order to study and assess the effect that they have on pollinators.

This article from The Independent talks about the “victory for bees” as 15 of 27 European Union members voted to ban 3 particular neonicotinoids for use on flowering plants for the next two years.  It is intended that the effect of these pesticides will be thoroughly studied over this time frame.

The scientific community is gathering support for the ban and calling for more field studies as companies like Bayer and Syngenta who produce these chemicals cite their own studies that show the chemicals to be safe for use.

Neonicotinoids are pesticides that are injected into the genetic material of seeds, which allows the plant to grow with the pesticide in all of the plant’s cells: the leaves, the pollen will all contain this pesticide.  While the amounts of the pesticide are generally sub-lethal to honey and bumble bees, some research is showing that bees that are exposed to these chemicals (neurotoxins to insects) start behaving abnormally and lose some of their navigational abilities.

Last year, The Economist had a great article discussing the dangers and current use of neonicotinoids to pollinators.

Perhaps you’ve seen the internet memes that have been floating around Facebook calling for further bans in Canada or the States.




And, outside of Elizabeth May starting a petition to request that Canada ban these pesticides, we in Canada seem to be sitting on the fence in deciding whether or not to discuss a ban.

In the meantime, groups of beekeepers, conservation societies and food groups have sued the US Environmental Protection Agency over failing to protect pollinators in the States.

Next, news stories have been floating around that nearly a third of US honey bees have died over 2012.  

With the high losses of bees both in the US and Canada this past year, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is considering opening the borders to American bee packages.  Our borders were originally closed to the import of any packaged bees from the States in 1987 when the risk of bringing bee disease like the varroa mite, or contaminating bee populations with the Africanized honey bee genes, was deemed too high.  It was reviewed in 2003 and still determined to be too risky.  Now with the extreme losses in bee populations that beekeepers are experiencing and the pressure to be allowed to buy cheaper bee packages from the States instead of New Zealand, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is revisiting the issue.

With all of the bees that have perished this year, there are stories surfacing of potential food shortages coming for this summer: blueberry farmers in the Lower Mainland near Vancouver are panicking that their orders of bee colonies necessary for the growing season haven’t arrived, California almond farmers are missing their needed truckloads of bees and the US expects to have food shortages this summer and subsequent rising prices on our usual fruits and veggies.

On a lighter note, there is a very neat story of urban architecture in Buffalo working to support a colony of bees that had made an old building its home.

Have you been keeping up with the “buzz” lately?  Any other interesting studies or articles that have come out recently?  Leave us a comment 

Article Roll-Up:

The Independent: Victory for Bees


Nature: Europe Debates Risk to Bees


The Economist: Subtle Poison


Elizabeth May’s Petition to Ban Neonicotinoids


CBC: Canada wrestles with bee-killing crop pesticides


The Guardian: US Government sued over use of pesticides linked to bee harm


Wired: Third of US honey bees killed last winter, threatening food supply


The Vancouver Sun: Ban on US bees creating buzz in Canada


The Vancouver Sun: Bee shortage threatens lucrative blueberry crop


Wired: Tower for Bees



bee’s come undone…

… it’s like unwrapping a giant, sting-y present

It is probably just a tease of spring, but the forecast for this week in Calgary looks promising!

Calgary Weather... wheeeeeee!

Calgary Weather… wheeeeeee!

Drumroll please, it’s time to uncover the bees.  Our 1-year bee anniversary is May 12th so we are crossing our fingers that the bees have gotten this far and are going to keep on truckin’ until the dandelions come out and start providing some nectar for the hive.


I have to admit, that I couldn’t quite keep away from the hive all this time and peeked over the Easter weekend (it was so warm and lovely out).  I unwrapped the Tyvek and pulled off the styrofoam on just the side with our hive window.  (Okay, completely truthfully here – my aunt and teenage cousins were in town and I was just so excited to show off our bees a little bit!)  When we looked in the hive, there were about a half dozen of combs with bees all over them!  Good sign!  I was so happy that this many bees had survived!

The next day though, my sister was over and I dragged her out to show off our bees and when we opened the window… NO BEES.  None.  My heart sank and I immediately thought that by letting some light into the hive the previous day that somehow I killed all of the bees.  I wrapped the hive back up and over the next few days was somewhat relieved to see that there were still a lot of bees coming and going from the hive on warm afternoons. It was hard to guess at how many were in the hive, but all I could do at that point was hope for the best.

Through April, the inner-city farmers went away on holidays, so we didn’t have a chance to worry about the hive.  Calgary, unsurprisingly, snowed a few more times over the month and had some days that were almost 20°C. It’s now May, though, so it is time to expose the hive and what bees have made it this far to the elements.

Bees returning to the hive full of pollen - where are they finding it?

Bees returning to the hive full of pollen – where are they finding it?

We’ll know over the next few weeks if we have enough bees that made it through the winter to keep the hive going, but we’ll keep from opening the hive until we see some strong activity coming and going from the hive and the afternoon temperatures get up to about 20°C.

After uncovering the hive, I opened the window to take a peek and things are still looking pretty quiet in there.  The odd bee was running around on the combs close to where I could see, but outside of that – no bees!  There are many flying in and out of the hive though, so could they just be hiding on the side away from the window?

Fellow Calgary Beekeepers – have you uncovered your bees?  Have your hives survived this past winter? Any experience with hives coming back even from small numbers after the winter?

Leave us a comment!

PS>  We did want to brighten up Spring for the bees, so we bought them a few flowers.  (Maybe it just makes us feel better?)



the first cut is the deepest…

Baby, I know!

The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, A.I. Root (1915)

The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, A.I. Root (1915)

One of our favourite stories to tell about our first summer of beekeeping is how we managed to escape 5 months of hands in a hive without a single sting for either of us.  A perfect track record and a great experience to share with those who might be a bit more nervous around bees.

It all changed one warm winter day when some of the bees were braving the outdoors to take a chance and stretch their wings.  We watched from the window as one little bee took off out of the hive, circled once and then fell to the ground.  Sad to see one of the bees go down on such a nice day, we rushed out to “save” her.  A. picked her up in his hand and she must have liked the warmth because she didn’t want to leave! Tried to shake her back on to the landing board of the hive, but there was no convincing her to head home.  Finally, A. went to flick her off of his palm and right at that moment, she panicked and stung him.  We saw it all like it was in slow motion, her stinger pointing straight down and then her bottom twitching towards his hand and, in a split second, flying off and falling to the ground again.

We were able to see the stinger and venom sac pulsing a little bit, releasing more venom into the sting before A. scraped it sideways to remove it from his hand. Poor little bee was slowly fading away in the snow and the surprising thing was how long she kept on living even after twisting herself away from the sting.

Who would’ve thought our first sting would be in the middle of the winter!

The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, A.I. Root (1915)

The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, A.I. Root (1915)

Bee venom and alarm pheromones

Pheromones play a large role in the stinging behaviour of bees.  The two main pheromones are iso-pentyl acetate and 2-heptanone.  2-heptanone comes from the mandibular gland of the worker bee, but only the bees that have guard and forge duties will have this chemical present in the gland.  Iso-pentyl acetate is associated with the stinger itself and smells like banana oil (you might be able to smell it after being stung!) When the bees are distressed, they might grip on to the comb or your clothing with their mandibles and release 2-heptanone and when a bee stings (or even just open their sting chamber and protrude the stinger) iso-pently acetate will be released.  The pheromones alert other bees and put them on guard for additional stings.

The venom itself (aka apitoxin) is made of eight chemicals, with the most important ones being histamine, hyaluronidase and lecithinase.  A substance called melittin makes up 50 – 75% of the venom (depending on who you talk to) which is an anti-inflammatory and induces cortisol steroid production in the body, disrupts cellular walls and destroys cells. We know the effect histamines have in the body, if you’ve ever experienced allergies and had to take an anti-histamine to get rid of the symptoms.  Histamines trigger and inflammatory response and will cause adrenaline to be released into the body, your heart will start beating a bit faster and your blood will flow faster.  Lecithinase damages red blood cells and inhibits clotting and hyaluronidase is an enzyme that can both harm the molecules in synovial fluids that protects your joints but is also implicated in improving rheumatic disease! It primarily functions to dilate capillaries and spread the inflammation of the sting.

Melittin, 2009Painted steel 5” x 17” x 7” (13 cm x 43 cm x 218 cm), Julian Voss-Andreae

Melittin, 2009
Painted steel 5” x 17” x 7” (13 cm x 43 cm x 218 cm), Julian Voss-Andreae

The stinger

The stinger is barbed, which means that the sting organs are usually left behind after the bee flies away. According to the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, if you are stung and have the wherewithal to calmly watch the process, you’ll often see the bee tried to fly away but realize that she’s stuck and then proceed to walk in a circle around her stinger and twist herself free from it.

The stinger is made of three parts, the outer shell and two barbed husks that slide inside of it.  The muscles around the stinger and the venom sac operate like a little pump that allows the stinger to slide quite deep into the skin and then keep pumping venom from the sac even after the bee has taken off.  This is why you want to get that stinger and the venom sac out of your skin as quickly as possible.  If you’re fast enough, you may not even remember being stung within an hour or two, but if you don’t remove the stinger and allow all of the venom to be pumped into your skin, you can feel the effects for days after!

Anatomy of the Honey Bee, R.E. Snodgrass (1875)

Anatomy of the Honey Bee, R.E. Snodgrass (1875)

How to deal with a sting

In the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, AI Root et al talk about how interesting it is to calmly observe all the stages of a bee sting as they happen – though that kind of patience is not easy!  When stung, you want to remove the stinger as quickly as possible, before all of the bee venom is pumped into your body.  Don’t pinch the stinger and attempt to pull it out, you’ll only end up squeezing more of the venom into your skin.  Instead, use a knife-edge or, in a pinch, your fingernail and try to scrape the stinger out sideways from underneath the venom sac.

The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, A.I. Root (1915)

The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, A.I. Root (1915)

Alternating hot and cold compresses on the area affected by the sting will help reduce the symptoms and reduce the swelling. If there’s any suspicion that you might have an allergy, you should have an epi-pen handy and be ready to give a dose of adrenaline.  First aid tip: even if the epi-pen makes you feel better, you still should go to the hospital if you have a full-blown allergy as the effects can wear off quickly and you’ll need further treatment!

Bee-keepers will, after being stung a certain number of times, develop a sort of immunity to bee stings and rarely feel more than a slight swelling and little pain after a sting.  How long this takes will vary from person to person, but one should always be cautious as too many bee stings at once can take its toll on your heart even if you have been stung frequently in the past and feel a certain amount of immunity!

From “Beekeeping in Western Canada” (Gruszka, 1998), “it is often said that the sting is only 1/8 inch long – the other six inches are your imagination”.

Sting of a honey bee. The barbed stinger is torn off and remains in the skin. Muscles at the stinger continue to pump venom into the wound. (1. September 2007)Author: Waugsberg (Wikipedia)

Sting of a honey bee. The barbed stinger is torn off and remains in the skin. Muscles at the stinger continue to pump venom into the wound. (1. September 2007)
Author: Waugsberg (Wikipedia)

Leave us a comment!


rockin’ around the christmas bee

Happy Holidays and to a Wonderful New Year from innercityfarmers!

O Tannenbee!

O Tannenbee!


Leave us a holiday message!


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the dirt on dirt…


We focus a lot of our attention on what grows out of the ground and what we build on top of it, but often, little attention to the ground itself.  The overall health of our soils is important in supporting the growth of all of our foods and fibres, whether directly or indirectly, but also plays a global role with many other functions.

“Soil acts as a filter, cleaning air and water. It exchanges gases with the atmosphere and thus influences global climate. Soil receives organic wastes and recycles their nutrients back to plants; it also holds and breaks down some toxic wastes. Because soil plays such a key role in world health, economies, and environmental stability, we must conserve it and use it in a sustainable manner. (The Health of Our Soils, 1995)

What are the problems with our soils?

Our ecosystems are interrelated and, in order to produce healthy food year after year, care must be put back into the soil to maintain its integrity and ability to support new growth.  Often, the pressure to produce more foods causes the focus to shift to crop yields rather than soil health.  When the soil health starts to decline, increased amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides will be used to maintain a certain level of production in poorer soils.  Unhealthy soils are less able to utilize these chemicals and increased application results in chemicals running into water systems (The Health of Our Soils, 1995).

The key soil degradation processes include: erosion, salinization and water logging, compaction and hard setting, acidification, loss of soil organic matter, soil nutrient depletion, biological degradation, and soil pollution. Agricultural activities influence all these processes (Agriculture at a Crossroads, 2009).


The 2012 World Bank Report on Climate Change

Climate change is also likely to have adverse affects on our soils and the amount of arable land that can be used for agriculture. “Given the competition for land that may be used for other human activities (for example, urbanization and biofuel production), which can be expected to increase as climate change places pressure on scarce resources, it is likely that the main increase in production will have to be managed by an intensification of agriculture on the same—or possibly even reduced—amount of land. Declines in nutrient availability (for example, phosphorus), as well as the spread in pests and weeds, could further limit the increase of agricultural productivity. (Turn Down the Heat, 2012)” Global crop production may increase with some increase in world temperatures (predicted from 1°C – 3°C) but beyond a certain level will decline substantially.  Increased drought and desertification will put incredible pressure on food production systems to feed more in less space.  Interestingly, with increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere, there will actually be a fertilization effect to a certain extent for many crops.  The World Bank Report on Climate Change indicates that this effect will be washed out by the negative impacts like drought, however.

The Global Assessment of Human-induced Soil Degradation (GLASOD) showed that soil degradation in one form or an- other occurs in virtually all countries of the world. About 2,000 million hectares (23% of all used land) are affected by soil degradation. Water and wind erosion accounted for 84% of these damages, most of which were the result of inappropriate land management in various agricultural systems, both subsistence and mechanized (Agriculture at a Crossroads, 2009).

Conventionally, adding fertilizers to our soils has drastically improved the yields from our farm.  In fact, the development and burgeoning use of fertilizers in the 1970’s was a part of what was dubbed the “Green Revolution” because of the significant improvement to crop yields of cereal grains.  It was an important part of food strategy for increasing production and feeding our exploding populations worldwide.

There are some troubles with the widespread application of fertilizers – increased greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of energy that goes into producing the fertilizer chemicals and the eventual effect that it has on soil health and sustainability.  Nitrogen fertilizer use has lead to the increase of nitrous oxide emissions (N2O  – the same stuff that makes you giggle at the dentist) which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide or methane.  Ammonia-based fertilizers result in large methane emissions.  In terms of energy use, approximate 5% of our world’s natural gas supplies go toward the production of ammonia for fertilizer – almost 2% of our total world’s energy supply! (Wikipedia – Fertilizer) – and results in the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions from fuel use. If we endeavour to move to a carbon-free future in any respect, we will have to figure out a way to ease our dependency on chemical fertilizers.

From IAASTD’s Global Report on Agriculture, “The impact of nitrates from fertilizers and livestock production on soil and water resources is a related issue. This impact can be described in general terms as the nitrification of the global ecosystem from inorganic fertilizers and alteration of the global nitrogen cycle. Eutrophication as a consequence of nutrient runoff from agriculture poses problems both for human health and the environment. Impacts of eutrophication have been easily discernible in some areas such as the Mediterranean Sea and northwestern Gulf of Mexico.”

So how can we improve our soils?

Support alternative agricultural practices

Organic, urban and peri-urban, and conservation agriculture are all practices that can help to ensure that soil health is maintained.  Organic agriculture helps to ensure that less chemicals are being applied to the soils and enter the ecosystems (though a reliance on manure fertilizers have negative environmental implications).  Urban and peri-urban practices can make use of limited spaces and encourage biodiversity, but there can be environmental impacts from pesticides and pollution from agricultural activities in densely populated areas.  It could have very positive implications for food supply however, “For example in Hanoi, Vietnam, urban and peri-urban agriculture supplies about one-half of the food demand and engages more than 10% of the urban labor force in process- ing, marketing, retailing, input supply, and seed and seedling production (Agriculture at a Crossroads, 2009)“.

Conservation agriculture puts an emphasis on zero-tillage, crop rotations, use of cover crops and maintenance of plant cover through the year.  It promotes minimal soil disturbance with no plowing or harrowing, maintenance of permanent vegetative soil cover, direct sowing and sound crop rotation (Agriculture at a Crossroads, 2009).  “Broader adoption of conservation agriculture practices would result in numerous environmental benefits such as decreased soil erosion and water loss due to runoff, decreased carbon dioxide emissions and higher carbon sequestration, reduced fuel consumption, increased water productivity, less flooding, and recharging of underground aquifers” (Agriculture at a Crossroads, 2009).

Getting to know some of your local food producers can be a way of learning how to support these various techniques.  For example, our Community Shared Agriculture program this summer provided us with a basket of veggies each week that we know are being grown with organic and conservation agriculture practices.

Trying to grow some veggies in your own backyard can be a great way to start appreciating how soil health can support plant life.  Planting nitrogen-fixing plants (the plants that take nitrogen out of the air and mineralize it into their roots, which is then transferred into the soil to fertilize other plants!) in rotation can keep the nutrient-levels of your soils up while letting you enjoy peas and beans!

Increase the organic matter in soils

Plants that grow from the soil take some of the nutrients from the soil to make the plant – when these plants are harvested, those nutrients are removed from the system entirely.  If you can help return organic matter to the soil, nutrients will be replaced.  “Commercial fertilizers can be added to replace nutrients removed from the soil but they do not directly build up soil organic matter. Rather, they promote plant growth, which in turn results in more residue being returned to the soil. Other materials, such as crop residues, animal manure, green manure (leguminous plants, such as alfalfa and red clover, and grasses), compost, peat, and wood chips must be added to maintain or increase soil organic matter. (The Health of Our Soils, 1995)

Whatever you can do to add organic matter to soils, will ultimately help preserve the quality of your soil as you use it.  When you harvest your haul of veggies, leave the roots and leaves and stalks and anything else that you aren’t actually eating on and in the ground to help put some organic matter back into the earth.  That pumpkin you carved for Hallowe’en? Toss it in the backyard before it snows and in the spring you’ll have a nice mushy lump of organic matter to turn in the soil.  Apples from your tree this year?  Shake them into the garden!

Ditch the chemicals

While pesticide residues in Canada are not seen as a pressing issue right now (we have only been practicing agriculture throughout the prairies for about 100 years) there is cause for concern about the accumulation of agro-chemicals in our ground and surface water.  “Although most of the Prairie ecozone is thought to be at low risk of contamination by agrochemicals, their entry into the subsoil and groundwater can be significant under certain conditions. For example, applying feedlot cattle manure on the land at the maximum recommended rates has resulted in substantial soil and groundwater contamination by nitrate at some locations in Alberta. (The Health of Our Soils, 1995)


Green Calgary’s Pesticide Free signs

If you’re in the city, join the “Growing Movement” and go pesticide free.  Get out and enjoy the sun and the invigorating exercise of pulling weeds by hand.  We love dandelions because they provide the first food of the spring for our sleepy bees and all of our other native pollinators and can mean the difference between a starved hive and a thriving one.  We can appreciate, though, that not everyone shares a love for dandelions.  Staying on top of them and pulling them before they go to seed will eventually see the departure of that wonderful little weed from your yard.

It is illegal in Calgary to wash your car in the street because our run-off sewers go straight into the Bow River.  Chemicals applied to your yard that are washed away during rain will end up in the same place.

Change things up

Rotating your garden and companion planting to increase the diversity of plants growing in your soil is another way to improve its health.  Companion planting can also allow you to take advantage of some pest control techniques to avoid using chemicals, for example planting onions around your carrots can help keep bugs away from the carrots.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Crops should be mixed and their spatial-temporal distribution varied, to create a greater diversity of niches and resources that stimulate soil biodiversity. For example diverse habitats support complex mixes of soil organisms, and through crop rotation or inter-cropping, it is possible to encourage the presence of a wider variety of organisms, improve nutrient cycling and natural processes of pest and disease control” (Organic Agriculture and Soil Biodiversity).

Eat less meat

There are a couple of things that can help to improve soil from a global perspective.  World meat consumption is expected to increase 70% by 2030 and is one of the major causes of increased fertilizer use – which is expected to increase by 188 million tonnes in the same period!  “These systems can lead to concentration of manure; although manure is a valuable source of nutrients, concentrated spreading of manure leads to significant emissions, to air, soil and water. (Agriculture at a Crossroads, 2009)”  The demand on our agriculture system to produce more meat from smaller amounts of land will put an incredible amount of pressure on our farming systems.  By decreasing our own demands on the amount of meat that needs to be produced will allow our limited resources to produce more food and calories in, hopefully, more sustainable ways.

At the end of the day…

“Soil degradation is the most serious crisis facing the agricultural industry in the long term. This statement does not diminish the facts of the current economic crisis in some sectors of agriculture, but economic problems are cyclical in nature, and it is to be hoped that the present problems will be managed satisfactorily in the near future. On the other hand, soil degradation is with us today, and will be with us tomorrow, next year, and forever. Unless we take further action, we shall lose the competitiveness of our agricultural industry in the next few years. The health of the agricultural industry depends on both the quantity and the health of the soil.”  (The Health of Our Soils, 1995)

Even though these words came from a report written in Canada almost 20 years ago:, the message remains the same today.  If anything, the scope of the danger has only increased from agricultural competitiveness to the ability to feed our growing population in the future.  

How do you feel about the dirt beneath your feet?  Leave us a comment!


Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The Health of Our Soils: Toward sustainable agriculture in Canada.  1995. 

Report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided. November, 2012.

IAASTD Global Report. Agriculture at a Crossroads. 2009.


UN Food and Agriculture Organization. ORGANIC AGRICULTURE AND SOIL BIODIVERSITY http://www.fao.org/ORGANICAG/doc/soil_biodiversity.htm


on bees overseas

the honeybee prefecture, japan

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”  ~Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in Kyoto, Japan, for a work-related visit and serendipitously found a few local beekeepers to chat with.  Not particularly intending to seek out bees or honey on this trip, I feel quite lucky to have stumbled across the two that I did and hear a little bit about beekeeping in Japan.

Sugi Yohoen

Sugi Yohoen is a huge beekeeping company in Japan.  With over 3000 hives in the Kansai area, Sugi Yohoen also imports honeys from other parts of the world in order to offer exotic honeys like litchi (Korea) and jarrah (Taiwan).  While offering a huge selection of honey, they also have many processed honey products.  Some of their most popular products seemed to be squeeze bottles of honey and fruit syrups with which you could make hot or cold sweet drinks.  They also carried a line of honey-based cosmetics (lotions, soaps, shampoos and beauty products) and other goods from the hive like jars of propolis and boxes of royal jelly.

Ginkaku-ji “The Silver Pavilion” in Kyoto

I visited a store in Kyoto near the Ginkaku-ji temple that had recently opened.  Coincidentally, the president of the company was at the store when I popped in and we had a great conversation about beekeeping when I showed him a picture of our own hive (of course, I carry around pictures of our own bees with me at all times for any such incidental run-ins with other beekeepers, random people on the subway who express even the slightest interest in bees, etc.).

Even the limited language that we could share between us, you can tell that Koichi Mori is incredibly proud of his company and beekeeping history. His family started beekeeping over 60 years ago in a grove of Kumamoto cedar in 1946 and the company has grown enormously since then.  Now with 41 stores across Japan, they opened their first retail store in Kumamoto in 1973 and the latest one that I visited opened recently in June of last year.  I tried some of their honey/fruit drink and, just as I was about to leave, Koichi pulled me aside and opened up a frame of comb that was on display and dug a spoonful out for me to try.  There’s nothing like honey that is fresh from the comb!

For such a large company, one always wonders about their practices in terms of land use, chemicals and apiary management.  From the Sugi Yohoen website, I was quite impressed at some of the initiatives that they have taken to preserve beekeeping in Japan.  From providing lotus seeds to rice farmers to increase biodiversity and improve local soils, to maintaining production by hand (being “stubborn to maintain handiwork”), it seems like this company also operates with a conscience.

I brought home two little jars of orange blossom honey and wildflower honey which were both from the apiaries in Japan.

Land of Milk and Honey

I took a trip from Kyoto to Nara one day to visit the Great Buddha temple Todai-ji and visit the deer that run “wild” all over town.  There happened to be a little farmers’ market right outside the train station and, as luck would have it, a husband and wife selling local honey from their apiary!  I tried my best with the small vocabulary of Japanese that I have and with a lot of pointing managed to get across that I keep bees as well.  Not until my wide-eyed look at their full response in Japanese did they realize that I don’t truly speak a word and graciously switched to English.

The Great Buddha at Todai-ji in Nara

When I showed the couple the pictures of our bees and our hive, they said that our bees must be really happy bees with the natural style of hive that we have.  They have 20 Langstroth hives that they keep on a friend’s green tea farm (who had the market stall next to them).  They are incredibly proud of the fact that their beekeeping is done completely without the use of chemicals.

They keep European style bees, which I imagine would be Italians over Russians just like ours, and they seem to have very little trouble with disease.  Last year, they lost two hives to mites over the winter, but all of the other hives are strong and healthy.

They had two types of honey in beautiful little jars with home-printed labels.  One honey was from the spring-flow and the other from the summer.  The spring flow honey was very sweet, just like the honey at Sugi, while the summer honey was thicker, darker and had a much earthier, pollen flavour.

We exchanged email addresses and it would be lovely to keep in touch with this couple and see how their bees fare.  They were quite interested in the fact that our bees lived in the city and wished me luck on expanding our apiary to two hives next year.  They were amazed that our bees were outside in a Canadian winter (if there is one thing that Japanese folks know about Canada, it’s that it’s very cold there!) and recommended that we should find a friend’s house to put them in for future winters.

Orange and Wildflower honey from Sugi Yohoen, Spring and Summer honey from Land of Milk and Honey

the state of beekeeping in Japan

In Japan, beekeeping has enjoyed a long history.  Many beekeepers work with the same European honeybees Apis mellifera that are found all over the world, but also have a lot of hives with Apis cerana japonica (Japanese honeybee).  The Japanese honeybees are more prone to swarming, but more resistant to disease than their European brethren.

From the Tokyo Foundation, there are a few differences between the Japanese and European honeybees:

“Research has proven various advantages of Japanese honeybees. First, they are resistant to such infectious diseases as foulbrood and chalkbrood. Second, they know how to fight Japanese giant hornets and other intruders. European honeybees are defenceless against giant hornets, which were absent in their native habitat, so that a small number can devastate an entire colony. But Japanese honeybees immobilize invading hornets by attacking them in large groups, form a ball around them, and heat them to death by vibrating their flight muscles so that the temperature in the ball rises to around 47 degrees Celsius.

Third, Japanese honeybees are resistant to cold. European honeybees are unable to move about in temperatures below 11 degrees, being descended from bees native to Africa, but Japanese honeybees will harvest pollen in lower temperatures if needed.

Fourth, and most of all, Japanese honeybees are small but agile. They diligently go about collecting the nectar, pollen, and juice of various plants, giving their honey a profound flavour.”

But, like everywhere in the world these days, all is not well with bees in Japan.  2007 saw losses to almost 50% of all hives due to disease and Japan has subsequently barred the import of queens from Australia, believing that they were spreading the nosema virus. Farmers are feeling the losses of bees and noting decreased fruit production, especially with respect to watermelons, strawberries and cherries across the country. The disaster of the Fukushima nuclear plant last year had caused a moratorium on the sale of honey from that area and beekeepers were constantly monitoring their hives for radiation levels.  Many hives were lost and, while insects normally show a high resistance to the effects of radiation, only time will tell what the results are from long-term exposure to low levels.

There are good news stories regarding the sustainability of beekeeping in Japan in spite of these issues. On the island of Tsushima, for example, a strong tradition and industry of beekeeping exists.  Beekeepers there have Japanese bees exclusively and work to preserve traditional beekeeping methods like using log hives and cultivating indigenous species of crops and flowers to support a healthy ecosystem.  Now accounting for only 10% of domestic honey production, native Japanese honeybees are being encouraged in places like Tsushima and all beekeepers there are using Apis cerana japonica.

From a book by Seita Fujiwara on beekeeping in Japan (Nihon mitsubachi) :

“Indigenous species are the fruit of a region’s ecological balance that has been nurtured over tens of thousands of years, the very ‘trials and tribulations’ that have taken place millions of times as part of the workings of nature. They are coming to attract attention because they possess a universal value like that of an ancient tongue, which no amount of tinkering by humans can create and is irrecoverable if lost in the interest of short-term gain.”

Leave us a comment! 


Sugi Yohoenhttp://www.0038.co.jp

Beekeeping on Tsushima: http://www.tokyofoundation.org/en/topics/japanese-traditional-foods/vol.-22-japanese-honeybee

Apis Japonica: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apis_cerana_japonica

Farmers stung by bee shortage: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20090425f1.html

Fukushima and bees: Editorial TG.pub – International Bee Research Association: www.ibra.org.uk

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what rhymes with kombucha

mmmmm… fizzy!

Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage that is gaining popularity in North America. Known as tea kvass in Russia, it’s been used as a tonic for centuries in other cultures. Kombucha, similar to other naturally fermented products like sauerkraut, is said to have health benefits related to digestion and your immune system. Kombucha, in particular, is often a part of detox or cleanse programs and may contain organic acids (like gluconic and lactic acids) and enzymes that can be beneficial for your liver.

A lot of ferments start by using the yeasts and bacteria from your surrounding environment along with a food source to start the fermenting process. Kombucha uses a “mother” (a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts) that you add to a sweetened tea mixture to produce a fizzy, sour-tasting drink that is surprisingly delicious.

The first time I tried a kombucha, I wasn’t prepared for how sour and fizzy it would taste after learning that it was made from tea. After trying it a couple more times, I found that I really like it! It must be a bit of an acquired taste. A friend from NutritionAlberta has given us a mother to start our own kombucha – every time you make a batch, a new mother is made that you can pass on to other kombucha aficionados.

The mother is a gelatinous, mushroom-like blob that will float on top of your kombucha and turn all of the sugar and tea into the acids and enzymes that make up the tonic.

Kombucha recipe

3 litres filtered water
1 cup sugar
4 tea bags or 4 heaping teaspoons of organic black tea
1/2 cup kombucha from a previous culture
1 kombucha mother

Boil the filtered water adding sugar until it dissolves completely. Remove from heat and allow the tea to steep until the until the water has completely cooled (I have let mine steep overnight). Remove the tea leaves and pour into a 4 litre glass bowl and add the kombucha from a previous batch and place the mother on top.

Cover loosely with a tea towel (adding a line of tape across the bowl can help to keep the towel from falling into the bowl) and keep it in a warm, dark place. Depending on the temperature that it is stored at, it should be ready in 7 – 10 days.

It is ready when it tastes sour and fizzy and no longer has any tea flavour remaining. It may be a good idea to try a commercial bottle of kombucha so you have an idea of the taste before you make your own. I recently had a home-made kombucha at a health-food restaurant, but you could tell that it hadn’t been fermented nearly long enough as it still tasted very much like a sweet tea and had very little fizz or sourness to it.

When the kombucha is ready, your mushroom will have grown a second spongy pancake. This can be used to make other batches or given away to friends. Store fresh mushrooms in the refrigerator in a glass or stainless steel container-never plastic. A kombucha mushroom can be used dozens of times. If it begins to turn black, or if the resulting kombucha doesn’t sour properly, it’s a sign that the culture has become contaminated. When this happens, it’s best to throw away all your mushrooms and order a new clean one. From Nutrition Alberta

Note: White sugar, rather than honey or any other sweetener, and black tea, rather than flavoured teas, give the highest amounts of gluconic acid. Non-organic tea is high in fluoride so always use organic tea.

Just make sure that your mother isn’t contaminated – brown stringy things coming from the bottom of the mushroom are okay, blue/white/green mould on top of the mushroom is not!

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everything moves real slow when it’s 40 below

wrapping up the hive for winter

Bees work hard all summer and fall to build up their honey stores and have enough to stay warm and well fed all winter.  While the types of bees that are generally raised in Canada are originally from temperate climates, they have adapted to the cold Canadian winters by clustering in a ball and eating their own stored honey to stay warm.

Honeybees don’t hibernate, they are active all winter, but stay in the hive in their cluster and vibrate their wings to generate heat.  The worker bees have kicked out all of the drones as superfluous to the health of the hive and hunker down to wait for spring.  As mentioned in an earlier post, bees won’t go to the bathroom inside the hive, so they’ll wait for the end of winter or a warm day when they can dash outside to relieve themselves.

From A.I. Root, ABC of Bee Culture, 1910

There’s two main issues that can cause a hive problems in the winter: starvation and moisture.


Yes, the obvious reason a bee hive can starve over winter is if not enough honey is left for them by their beekeeper, or they weren’t able to amass enough stores to see them through the winter.  In addition to that, though, bees can still starve over winter with more than enough honey in the hive because of accessibility issues.

There are a few reasons why bees may not be able to access all of the honey they have in their hive.  Clustered bees tend to move through a hive in one direction only.  For top-bar hives, this means that the ball of bees could start in the middle of the hive and, over the winter months, move towards the back of the hive, eating honey as they go.  If they get to the end of the hive, they won’t turn around and find the honey at the front of the hive — they’ll think that they’ve run completely out. Another possibility, related to the moisture-control problem that we’ll talk about below, is if water freezes into an ice chunk between combs and cuts the bees off from their honey stores.

The average honey bee hive will need anywhere from 60 – 100 lbs (30 – 45 kg) of honey to get through a Calgary winter (that can last from October to May) and a lot of commercial beekeepers will feed their bees with additional syrup resources to ensure that the bees have enough food — especially if the beekeeper has taken a large portion of honey out of the hive.

For us, we would rather not get in the habit of feeding our bees a low quality sugar solution nor have the bees be dependent on our feeding to get them through a winter.  We may provide some of their own honey back to them in the spring if we think that they are low and flowers haven’t arrived yet, but outside of that we haven’t made plans to feed. We hope that our bees have enough honey to get them through the winter.  We harvested about 5 L this year with the last harvest being in the 3rd week of August.  Hopefully they were able to restock and will have enough!


“The honey consumed by bees is broken down into carbon dioxide and water.  For every gallon of honey consumed, and almost equal volume of moisture is given off in the hive.  Unless adequate provision is made for the escape of this moisture, colony mortality may be high.  When clustered, bees are unable to ventilate their hives by fanning.  Therefore moisture must be removed by convection currents, or it will condense in the hive” (Root, A. ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, 1978).

If you have condensation in the hive, you are going to have ice.  Ice can block the bees from their honey and will also suck heat out of the stored honey kept warm by the bees.  You can also end up with mould problems which can cause health issues for the bees.

Surprisingly, the winter cold is not one of the main reasons a hive may not survive the season.  Since bees are cold-blooded, their metabolisms and activities adjust to withstand the cold. The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture (1978) has a great analogy about bees in the cold:

Why Packing for Outdoor-Wintered Colonies?

It is only natural and logical to believe that double walls to a house would save fuel over a building where the walls are of only one thickness. Why would not the same principle apply to a bee hive?  The cluster of bees within would be a source of heat like a furnace pr a stove in a house.  The colder the outside atmosphere the more honey (fuel) the bees would consume.  The colder the outside the more fuel (coal) the furnace or stove would burn in a house.  This argument on its face is more convincing than true.

Bees are Cold-Blooded Animals

Up to this point the parallelism ends.  Beyond this there is a big difference.  In a house the occupants are human beings and therefore are warm-blooded and so can not stand a reduction of body temperature which must be kept at near 98 degrees F.  To do this man must wear clothes and in addition have a room temperature of 70 or 72 degrees F maintained by the consumption of coal, oil, or gas.  The occupants of a bee hive are bees and, as a science tells us, are cold-blooded animals.  The body temperature of bees can drop from 94 degrees F [34°C] summer brood rearing to around 43 degrees F on the surface of the cluster.  When the outer shell temperature goes as low as 27 degrees F [-3°C] bees die.  Bees in the outer shell one or more inches deep can stand 43 degrees F [6°C] for a long time provided they are kept supplied with food by the bees from within.

Bees raise the temperature in the cluster when it turns colder outside in two ways: (1) by contracting the cluster so as to reduce the outside surface and (2) by activity when the surrounding temperature drops below 57 degrees F… It will be noted that there is a considerable range of temperature of the winter cluster because bees are cold-blooded animals can adapt themselves to such variations while we humans can’t stand a continuous body temperature of much below 98 degrees F.”

We did prepare our hive a little bit to help address some of the heat and moisture issues.  We insulated the sides of the hive and the top of the roof with styrofoam R12 insulation. Between the last honey comb and the back of the hive, we slid the false back up to pack it in as close as possible.  The leftover space between the false back and the actual back of the hive was filled with R20 fibreglass insulation.  We put a thin layer of fibreglass insulation on top of the top-bars and put the roof over top of that.

On the outside of the hive, we wrapped everything but the front face with Tyvek® so that moisture could escape outwards, but not move inwards.  The wrap will also help keep wind down and stop convective heat loss from the hive.  Finally, we drilled a few holes into the front face of the hive to help allow moisture to escape and provide another exit for the bees.

This was our best effort in preparing our hive for winter.  The Calgary beekeeping group Apiaries, Bees & Communities has a great (free & downloadable) resource that describes techniques for winterizing hives.  We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that our bees survive their first winter, but we’re also trying to stay grounded and acknowledge that a lot of hives don’t make it.

Fun fact: Brandon Manitoba had a historical experimental farm that was set up in 1886 and studied winterization techniques for keeping bees from around the 1930s onwards!  If bees can survive a Canadian winter in a place like Brandon, hopefully we can figure out how to keep bees alive in urban Calgary!

Leave us a comment! Any other suggestions?  Do you think we need to shield against mice?


[we’re a] three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich

mmmmmm sauerkraut

I love sauerkraut. Being vegetarian, there weren’t an awful lot of hot dog opportunities to enjoy this condiment in my youth, so I didn’t fully appreciate this delightful way to enjoy cabbage until I learned how to make it myself.

One of the best resources out there to help with fermenting foods in your own kitchen is Sandor Katz’s, Wild Fermentation.  In his book, Sandor mentions the benefits of eating fermented foods including food preservation, enhanced digestion, and increased nutrition.

“Fermentation not only preserves nutrients, it breaks them down into more easily digested forms… [For example] wheat that has undergone fermentation is easier to digest that unfermented wheat.  A study in the journal Nutritional Health compared unfermented and fermented versions of a mix of barley, lentils, milk powder and tomato pulp and found that ‘starch digestibility almost doubled in the fermented mixture.’  According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization… fermentation improves the bioavailability of minerals present in food.” 

“Fermentation also creates new nutrients.  As they go through their life cycles, microbial cultures create B vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin and biotin… Some ferments have been shown to function as antioxidants, scavenging cancer precursors known as ‘free radicals’ from the cells of your body.  Lactobacilli create omega-3 fatty acids, essential for cell membrane and immune system function.”

We really find that eating sauerkraut on a fairly regular basis helps out a lot with digestion.  Instead of taking probiotic pills or overdoing it on singing/dancing yogurt products, there are tons of probiotics in naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut.  Building up a healthy gut flora even helps with your overall immune system — especially important during cold and flu season!  If you’re going to eat fermented foods for the probiotics though, make sure you are getting unpasteurized products — the heat processing to pasteurize most commercially available ferments kills off all of the beneficial bacteria.

Making your own sauerkraut

For sauerkraut, texture is key.  Peel off the first couple of outer leaves on the cabbage and leave them aside for later. Chop your heads of cabbage very thinly and place in a bowl.  Sprinkle a good helping of salt (at least two tablespoons per head of cabbage).  Massage the chopped cabbage.  Actually forget texture — massaging is truly key to a good kraut.  It takes a surprising amount of muscle to massage cabbage thoroughly, so let time help you with the work.  Chop a head of cabbage, massage in the salt and let it sit for a bit while you chop the next head.  Before adding more cabbage, massage the first batch again.  It should be nice and juicy by then.

Once it’s nice and juicy, pack the kraut into a crock meant for fermenting, or a wide-mouth mason jar.  Really jam the kraut in the jar and press down on the cabbage so that at least an inch of salty brine is covering the top of the cabbage. Use those outer leaves to put a couple layers on the top (to protect from moulds) and add a weight on top of the kraut (like a smaller jar filled with water or the weights that come with a proper crock).

If you’re serious about sauerkraut, you may want to invest in a crock, or a really big jar, because it seems like you need a critical mass of sauerkraut to really get the fermentation process going.  A small mason jar just really isn’t going to get you great results.  If you’ve got a crock, make sure there is water around the outside lip and set the lid in it.  The water acts as a seal, not allowing any air into the crock, but allowing gases that are created in the fermentation process out.  Ahhhh, science!  If you’re doing this in a jar, just make sure you’ve got a way for the gases to escape — don’t put a tight lid on the jar.

The kraut should be ready in anywhere from 5 days to 3 weeks, depending on how warm of a place you are storing it in.  Remember that the fermentation process will be incredible slow (and may not even start) if your kraut is too cold, so don’t store it on a cold basement floor.

You can check on the kraut every few days and test the flavour until you get the right amount of fermented ‘tanginess’ that you like.  Once it’s there, you can transfer it to individual jars and then keep them in a cold place to halt further fermentation.  This process isn’t like canning where you kill off all the bacteria so that you can store it indefinitely, naturally fermented krauts will have a shelf life, so enjoy it regularly.  Let your nose be your guide to determine if things are getting too sour!

My favourite sauerkraut adds dried nettle, juniper berries and caraway seeds to the cabbage.  Don’t forget that fermentation will increase the intensity of any herbs and spices, so if you’re adding garlic or chili, err on the side of caution the first time you make your kraut.  (Ahhhh, everyone around our apartment at the time will remember the garlic and turmeric kraut attempt of 2010.)

And eating kraut with dinner helps curb farts… just saying’.

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