Learning to Love the Swarm
Victim of disease and pests, the threatened bee finds a new caretaker in Vancouver’s young and eco-savvy.
“It’s easier than owning a dog,” says Alaina Thebault, East Van gardener and coordinator for the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA). “But more work than a cat.”
Thebault’s not talking about pet iguanas or even backyard chickens. The next darling of urban agriculture junkies seems to be, well, bees.
“You grow up your whole life being afraid of insects that sting you. I don’t recall ever being stung as a child, but it was always something I was afraid of,” she says. But beginning this year, Thebault’s relationship with the world’s leading pollinators took on a whole new dimension.
“I caught my first swarm back in May,” she explains. “I was at my parent’s house in Chilliwack and my dad found this swarm in the yard.” Faced with a buzzing mass of insects orbiting a queen, Thebault had her first up-close-and-personal encounter with a wild bee colony.
“I was like, ‘Oh crap.’ I had no idea what to do.”
Coached by an experienced colleague over the phone, Thebault took charge of the rogue swarm. “She told me to grab a box and put a little bit of sugar in it. She said, ‘Just be calm.’ I didn’t have anything — no veil, no gloves — I just grabbed this branch, and it was surrounded in this big football of bees.”
While her parents observed in a mild state of shock, Thebault says in that moment she knew she wanted to look after a hive of her own.
“I was like, ‘I’m hooked.’ You know, these things are really special.”
Not many can claim to have maneuvered thousands of live bees with their bare hands. In fact, most people — including Thebault’s own family — would gladly call it crazy. But a little bit of learning has pushed Thebault and dozens more young people like her to think about bees in a new light.
“You might not know this, but bees are incredibly docile when they swarm,” she explains. “They eat as much honey as they can before they leave the hive. They basically gorge themselves, and so they’re incredibly lethargic and harmless.”
For the record, Thebault was not stung once during this entire episode. “Once they swarm, they don’t have any space to protect so they’re not as defensive either,” she adds. “So they’re very easy to work with.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, says Thebault. The more she researched the importance of bees in B.C.’s ecosystems and the threat of colony collapse, the more she wanted to bring the tiny creatures into her own backyard…
Beekeeping: not just for ‘geezers’
In stark contrast to big-time commercial apiaries, urban beekeepers often maintain low-impact organic hives near community gardens. With ecology rather than profit in mind, young people in the city have taken beekeeping into their own hands…
“The commercial industry is still dominated by older farmers but I’ve seen a lot of interest in urban hives,” she adds. Taught at the Means of Production garden in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood, McKenna’s classes — attended predominantly by 20-something women — show students how to avoid pesticides and antibiotics and employ more sustainable practices.
Garr says he, too, has noticed youth interest in beekeeping grow. “It was geezers mostly,” he jokes about beekeepers’ association meetings in the past. He says attendance at beekeeping functions has jumped to nearly 100 from around 10 in the last couple years. “People are into it now, which was not the case five or eight years ago”…