With the nonchalance of someone grabbing a tuft of dryer lint, Jerry Jerrard snares an errant worker bee and, with slight pressure, introduces it to the top of his hand. He’s immediately stung. The now mortally wounded insect staggers towards his fingers while its stinger remains buried in his flesh, venom sack still pulsing.
“That’ll keep on injecting for about five minutes,” he states unflinchingly, pointing at the mini-hypodermic jutting from his skin. “And that bee is trash.” Unlike wasps, bees get one shot, then the buzzing’s over.
The whole sequence happened so fast I barely caught it. I missed it mostly because there were no “Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh… Heeessstungme! Ahhhhaa (expletive) … Owowowow” been-stung-by-a-bee histrionics that you and I (I, for sure) would have let rip. Plus, I was surprised. All I did was ask Jerrard how many times he’d been stung. I didn’t request a live demo.
But as the “bee guy” behind Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes Honey, Jerrard has caught a jolt more times than he can remember in his nearly 20 years of beekeeping. How many times exactly? “Couldn’t count that high,” he admits. “I take thousands of stings a season, sometimes as many as a couple hundred in a day. It still hurts. I don’t swell up as much any more. But it still hurts.” Like a chef knows that getting cut/burned/abused is part of the deal, bee people apparently get used to the sting of things. Probably cuts down on their coffee consumption.
Despite the potential for a zinger now and again, beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular. There are six hives high atop Toronto’s Fairmount Royal York hotel, which uses the honey the hives produce in its own restaurants. More can be found on the roof of the Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre, the Paris Opera House and in meadows around the world, too. Jerrard started with 5, and now has over 500. More hives are a good thing, as the plight of the honey bee has become increasingly dire over the past few years.
“It’s referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD,” he informs me while commenting on the declining bee population, “and it’s the result of a real soup of factors: from bee mites to diseases to up to 25 different viruses to the introduction of new pesticides and genetically modified plants that are proving to be toxic to bees.” So, you’re out a bit of honey for tea and toast. No big deal, right? Think again.
“Bees are one of the canaries in the coal mine,” he points out. “We’re losing bees; we’re losing frogs; we’re losing bats. This is an indication of the poor health of the environment. Humans have to be more aware of what they are doing.” It has been predicted that if the global bee population was annihilated, the human population would be kaput in about four years. Humans and bees are that interdependent. “I lost 27 per cent of my bees last winter; 33 per cent the winter before. And this has only been going on over the past four years,” says Jerrard. “Traditionally, beekeepers would lose 6 to 10 per cent of their bees over the winter. During the past four years, bee keepers globally have lost between 25 and 60 per cent of their bees.” Worried yet?
If there’s an upside to this not-so-rosy story, it’s that media attention has resulted in more people being bitten by the bee bug. Jerrard suggests that anyone who is interested should “think a lot before doing it.” It’s not easy work. And you may be stocking up on epi-pens, just in case.
yards of gold
A window of sunshine opened in the concrete-grey September sky as we pulled into one of Jerrard’s many bee yards located around the town of Bobcaygeon. These yards are frequently surrounded by knee-high electrified fences which usually — but not always — make the local bear population think twice before laying waste to the hives. “The fences will keep ’em away to a point,” Jerrard points out. “But with some bears, once they get a taste of honey, nothing will stop them.”
Bears and skunks can chew up a hive fairly quickly. “Skunks will make a commotion outside the hives to draw the bees out. Then they’ll crush them and eat ’em like popcorn,” he explains. And to a bear, a bee field presents the same opportunity as an all-you-can-eat sushi bar does to me. “They come in at night when the bees are more dormant. They’ll pull the hive apart, rip out the frames and eat everything — honey, wax, bees. And their skin is too tough to sting through.”
We approach a hive, me in long sleeves and a meshed beekeeper hat, Jerrard in jeans and t-shirt. Yeah, okay, I’m a wimp. But when you’re standing in a field with maybe 50 hives, the air literally humming from thousands of bees swarming around, you tend to fall back on skin-covering outerwear and nerdy headgear. Hey, shark cages ain’t sexy, but they have a purpose, right? “They’re in a good mood today,” Jerrard says encouragingly as we close in on a teeming nest of flying stinging things.
To reduce the chances of stings, a few puffs of wood smoke are blown into the hive. This accomplishes a couple things. First, the bees, sensing the potential burning of the hive, stock up on honey and prepare to abandon their home in search of another. Because they are loaded with precious cargo, their impulse to sting (and die and waste that cargo) is reduced. The smoke also masks the alarm pheromone the bees release to announce “sting at will” to all other bees in the vicinity. Lifting off the honey supers (the honey-collecting part of the hive) to expose the brood, he pulls out a few frames, finally exclaiming, “There she is. She’s a small queen, but you can identify her by the elongated body.”
the unbearable lightness of bee-ing
• As mentioned earlier, bees live in colonies. Colonies contain a single queen, numerous male drones and an army of (female) workers.
• The queen basically is an egg-layer (up to 2,000 per day).
• The “hive mentality” ensures the “Borg-like” operation of the colony.
• The workers provide ongoing hive life-support functions.
• A queen can live up to five years. Workers typically flame out after three weeks at the height of the season.
Then there are the drones. Drones don’t sting, don’t work and probably really piss off the rest of the hive. A drone lays around, eats valuable honey, plays X-Box and tries to get lucky with the queen. If it does, it goes out with a bang (seriously, look it up). If it doesn’t, the drone basically gets the boot once the mating season ends and must fend for itself. (Husbands and boyfriends take note.)
“Drones can’t sting, so if you want to have some fun you can drop one down the back of someone’s shirt,” Jerrard coaches. If you can determine that the victim has a serious allergy to bee stings, the fun-factor no doubt escalates. Beekeeper humour really is a discipline unto itself.
Having had our fun with the bees (including tasting freshly-harvested pollen literally off the bee’s knees), we head back to the honey house to sample the fruits of their collective labours.
food of the gods
“Honey is the only food known to man that won’t spoil,” Jerrard reveals. “And bacteria can’t grow in it, which is why the whole ‘pasteurization’ thing is basically a myth.” The big packers often heat their honey to very high temperatures. They do this to ensure the honey stays clear as long as possible. But like filtering wine, this sort of treatment can leach out flavour. Jerrard shuns such manipulation. “Nothing is added, nothing is taken out. It’s not micro-filtered. It’s not put under pressure. It’s as pure and natural as I can keep it,” he confirms. “It’ll naturally crystallize, but liquefy again if you warm it up.”
Comparing the standard supermarket stuff to Jerrard’s honey is like comparing Piat D’Or to Montrachet. In place of one dominant note of sweetness, his samples offer up floral, spice, fruit and earth notes. The flavours are distinct and complex with hauntingly long finishes. And they are also “varietal” in the sense that each honey comes from a particular flower, be it goldenrod, basswood, buckwheat, or purple loosestrife (“the Gewürztraminer of honey,” as a friend very accurately describes it). “Each plant blooms at a different time of the year,” explains Jerrard, when asked how he can tell which honey is made from what flower. “In the fall, we’re getting goldenrod. First thing in the spring we get dandelion.” Buckwheat is his rarest and most intense honey. “Just look at the colour. With honey, the darker it is, the more intense it will be.” Indeed, his buckwheat honey seems closer to molasses than the mild clover honey most of us are used to.
As the late afternoon sky turned back to gunmetal, I bid farewell to the bee guy and, with a honey selection tucked in my bag, motored southwest towards Toronto. The taste of honey lingered, as did a slight hum in my ears, as I steeled myself for the inevitable. Two-and-a-half hours later, while stuck in a massive traffic jam over the top half of the city (the bottom half being a write-off due to never-ending roadwork), I thought back to the frenetic activity of the hive. At first glance it had seemed chaotic. But upon closer inspection I could see order, purpose, a high level of specialization, cooperation, and ultimately, a perfectly functioning organic machine. In other words, the polar opposite of what I was seeing out my car window.