The Hamilton Urban Beekeepers is a Hamilton-based, community-oriented group that was created in February 2013 with the aim of educating students and the broader community on the critical role that honeybees play in the health and biodiversity of local ecological settings and in the security of our food supply. Recently, I was privileged to sit down with the group's founder and professional beekeeper, Brandi McDonald, alongside a few of the group's integral members: Mark Lee, Nashwa Khan and Ania Pellerin.
Q: Welcome guys and thanks for taking the time to sit down with The Starfish. To begin, Brandi could you tell us a little bit about how your group started and some of your major motivators for tackling a project as unique and ambitious as this in the Hamilton area?
Brandi: The Project started as a simple idea in late 2012. I thought it would be a good idea to initiate a beekeeping project on campus, since it seemed like an excellent opportunity for education and collaboration. Every day, more and more people are becoming aware of the bee crisis that is ongoing worldwide. Through the avenue of education, I thought I might be able to create the perfect opportunity to initiate these sorts of dialogues and talk about these kinds of issues within the Hamilton community. Previously in my beekeeping business, I would often receive phone calls and emails from concerned citizens and local media, asking for my opinion on the global decline of honeybees. Instead of fielding these questions individually, I realized that I could channel my passion and expertise of honeybees to benefit the greater Hamilton community.
Q: In the popular media, the global decline of honeybees has been attributed to what has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder. Could you briefly explain to us what this term entails?
Brandi: Colony Collapse Disorder is a term used in the media to explain a phenomenon that we are seeing that is a very elusive and multifaceted sort of problem. Essentially, honeybee populations are declining at a rate far greater than that expected, beyond anything seen in previous years. Through interdisciplinary research being conducted by academics and industry across North America and Europe, we are beginning to see that it is not a single factor, but rather a multitude of factors that are responsible for this drastic change. For instance, we know that exposure to pesticides, especially exposure to neocotinoids, is an important contributing factor to the decline, particularly in large agricultural settings where pesticide use is common. In other regions, the Varroa mite is responsible for some of the greatest die-offs observed to date. Due to the massive financial implications of this decline, there is a lot of politics involved in managing and restricting these contributing factors. My hope is for people to come to think of colony collapse disorder as an umbrella term that is broad and multifaceted, rather than a buzz-word that symbolizes a bee apocalypse that we are helpless of preventing. Through developing this understanding, I think we can better develop a social consciousness to understand what role we play in influencing these factors as citizens and as consumers.
Q: Some people occasionally think of bees and immediately think: who cares if we lose a little bit of honey?
Brandi: Honey is just one of a multitude of bee-derived products that we use on a daily basis, whether we are aware of this or not. For example, using honeybees for pollination is a 4 billion dollar business in Canada alone. In fact, honeybees are hugely important pollinators for a large part of our dietary staples, and their work helps significantly increase yields for crops such as oranges, berries and almonds, making farming viable for many farmers and thus playing a central role in their livelihoods. In fact, over 30% of the foods we enjoy everyday are directly or indirectly related to the pollinating activities of bees.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the specific activities that your group conducts to further your goal of educating the community?
Brandi: Well, this past summer was the first year that we had the hives on campus. This past year, we put together informal group visits and workshops so that people in the community could come in and get suited up, see the inner workings of the hive and interact with the different components of the bee´s ecosystem. During these workshops, we talk about the basics of bee biology, particularly pollination and biodiversity, using our very own Cootes Paradise as a living example. For instance, in Cootes Paradise where bees are foraging, we can see that different colors of pollen are related to what the bees are foraging over the course of the foraging season.
In addition to our workshops, we also sell limited quantities of bee-derived products and our honey, appropriately named ´Paradise Honey´, at the local farmer´s market. We use this as yet another golden opportunity to educate people on the importance of bee pollination. Also, we regularly invite guest speakers to discuss various aspects of honeybees, and hold educational events including a movie night for students a couple of nights every semester.
Another one of our major activities has been our involvement in Sustainability Day, where sustainability-centered groups across campus have the opportunity to network and collaborate with one another to educate the McMaster community on a wide range of topics. In addition, a group of our sustainability students regularly visit high schools in the Hamilton area with the aim of introducing students to the issue at a younger age and helping them feel empowered to contribute to the dialogue. Our hope is that in due time, these young minds will help devise ingenious and sustainable solutions to the problems we face.
Q: Do you feel that the general stance or theme of the bee issue changes when you discuss the topic with younger audiences?
Mark Lee: In terms of the reactions we get when talking to people, I think that everyone, whether young or old, feels that this is a lot of new information about an up-and-coming issue. When we go into schools, we like to use visuals that illustrate, for example, the impact that bees have on our food supply and how restricted our dietary options would be without the pollinating activities of bees. I think it is very fulfilling to see how people´s views change as they become informed and we begin to see social consciousness come to life. I´ve seen this happen irrespective of age and it is something that truly motivates what we do. In high schools, we are seeing more and more kids being educated on a myriad of social and environmental issues through classes that focus solely on environmental sciences and sustainability. This is something that did not exist when I was in high school, and it is very encouraging to see.
Q: What are your group´s plans for the near future?
Brandi: Since day one, our focus has been less on developing hives that maximize honey production and more on developing the facilities and infrastructure to educate as many people as possible without putting the bees at risk. Our plans for the near future include adding a few hives. In our current space, I feel that we can comfortably accommodate up to five hives. Perhaps the most exciting plans for the future involve our collaboration with McMaster professors who are looking to understand the fascinating science of these social insects. For instance, Dr. Reuven Deukas is very interested in pollination studies, and for the upcoming year we are looking to establish an observational hive for his graduate students to conduct ecological research. These studies will focus on identifying different pollens, on the social behavior of the bees through their dance and on their communication through pheromones. In addition, we are collaborating with civil engineering students that are conducting chemical analyses of our honey to determine whether there is a potential for our bees to have been exposed to any dangerous chemicals in the area, which may affect their future stability.
Obviously, none of these future plans can come to life if we work alone: I have been privileged to work alongside a great group of students in the Sustainability program at McMaster, and I hope to continue to grow these relationships in the future to include more students and more interested volunteers.
Q: How would an interested student or member of the community go about becoming involved with your initiatives and activities?