I’m standing in the middle of a field of lavender near Milton, Ontario. Bees hum all around. The scent of the flowers is so uplifting that it’s mood altering.
After a long day shooting another episode of my television series Escapes with Nigel, a sense of calm overwhelms me. I need that because for the past hour I’ve been talking with bee expert Tibor Szabo, of the Ontario Beekeepers Association, and the news is not good for bees. If I wasn’t so lavendered out, I’d be quite angry at the story he has to tell. Mind you, Tibor wears his bias on his sleeve. As far as he’s concerned, a new type of pesticide used by corn and soy farmers is the culprit in bee deaths. Neonicotinoids, or neonics for short, are applied to all the corn and soy seeds sold in the province, and perhaps in North America. The pesticide invades the entire plant and the pollinators, bees and butterflies mostly, can’t avoid it. It disorders their brain functions and they die. Tibor shows me bees on the ground walking in circles, or lying helplessly on their backs buzzing without getting anywhere. In the middle of an organic lavender field, you’d expect to see healthy bees, but the bees fly up to five miles to harvest the nectar and pollen they need and the farm is surrounded by unavoidable corn and soy fields.
On the other side of the argument are the massively financed chemical companies, which produce the pesticides, and the seed companies tied to them. They claim the worldwide die-off of honey bees in the so-called colony collapse disorder is tied to a parasitic mite. Diligent beekeepers have been reversing the effect of the mite with better bee hive management. In the European Union neonics have been banned for a two year period to study their effect. The US government is under pressure to take the same step, while our government is hiding its head in the sand. On the OBA website, there’s a petition to the Ontario premier demanding action, which I have signed.
While we are shooting, Ian Baird, the owner of Terre Bleu Lavender Farm, shows us one of the popular sights on his farm tour, a wonderfully constructed lavender oil still, gleaming with beaten copper, made entirely by hand. It’s like a work of art. Next to it stands a fascinating display: a see-through hive, where visitors can see the worker bees diligently building honeycombs from the nectar they collect in the adjoining lavender fields. Outside, his bee yard is filled with lavender coloured hives. Good branding at work here, alongside the bees.
A few days earlier, we have begun shooting our story in a hayfield north of Barrie, where young beekeeper Adam Ritchie keeps some of his hives. The day starts out rainy, but I have checked the marine weather forecast, which is usually very accurate, along with the current weather radar. It promises to stop around 10 and at exactly 1010 am it does so.
We first met Adam at his Adam’s Honey stall in the Barrie Farmer’s Market, where we shot a story on a very cold January Saturday morning. When our series was renewed for a second season, we were looking for ways to help people get out of the city and into the countryside. Visiting a bee yard isn’t really practical for most folks, but we wanted to show our viewers the story behind the honey they buy at the market, which explains why our crew is standing around in a damp hayfield waiting for the rain to stop so Adam can open a hive to show us how it works. Because I’m going to be right next to the bees, I get suited up in a full head covering net, a seamless jacket and thick gloves, not a very flattering outfit, but one guaranteed to keep me safe from bee stings. Adam assures the crew they are safe a few yards away. He wears a net over his head, but otherwise doesn’t cover his hands. He’s become impervious to bee stings.
We’re inside a nasty electrified fence. That’s to keep the bears out. The bears love honey and the bees don’t like bears. We’re all wearing bright colours for safety. To a bee, dark means bear. We don’t want them to think we’re bears.
Adam opens up his hives regularly to check the health of the bees, so we are not imposing on the colony unduly for the sake of shooting. Once the lid is off, he shows me a frame where the bees are making their complex wax combs, each cell exactly the same hexagonal shape and size, marvellously efficient. When the bees have finished loading up a cell with honey, they seal it off. At harvest time, the beekeeper removes the entire box of frames, called a super, heavy with up to 25 kilos of honey, and gently blows the bees off. At his honey house, the cells are uncapped and the honey extracted, filtered and packaged. The natural preservatives in honey keep it fresh for years. Tolerably edible honey has been found in pharaoh’s tombs several thousand years old.
To investigate this stage of production we visit Peter Dickey, of Dickey Bee Honey in Cookstown. He’s built a spectacular new honey house, where he encourages visitors and runs regular tours for school groups. Of course, he also has a shop where all his natural products can be bought, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Peter is a fourth generation beekeeper and has moved his great-grandfather’s business from Delhi, via several other locations. Now he keeps his bee yards in farmers’ fields convenient to the honey house.
The first thing I notice is that the place is immaculate and to keep it that way, we wear those funny hair nets as we tour the facility. When the supers arrive, the honey combs in the frames are uncapped and the honey extracted in new machines, but Peter also demonstrates the way honey was extracted in the old days. I have a go at a big old tub of a machine and after a few minutes on the crank handle, I’m exhausted. Getting the honey from the hive is just as hard work for the beekeeper as making it was for the bees. After extraction, the big containers of honey are filtered and stored in the warm room, to make packaging easier. It’s a stinking hot summer day when we visit and we get overheated quite quickly. The warm room seems excessively warm to us.
Finally, we’re led into the packaging facility. The staff are off this day, so there’s no one to demonstrate how the line works. Peter soon solves that problem. I’m sat down in front of a big stainless steel vat filled with warm honey. Beside me is a box of 100 empty jars. Line the jars up in the slot, hold down the lever until the honey reaches exactly here, he says, move them down and cap them off. I’ll be in the shop when you’re done. That’s how I spend the next half hour or so, happily filling jars with sweet, golden honey.
When my work is done, and videotaped for the show, I find Diane in the shop, chatting with Peter, with a bag filled with two jars of dark buckwheat honey, beeswax candles and honey hand cream. Always the shopper, but this time I’m not complaining. I’ll have honey in my tea tonight.
UPDATE: This program will be broadcast on Bell Fibe TV, channel 1217, starting on Sunday, November 9, 2014, and is available immediately on our Escapes with Nigel website.