To bee or not to bee?

August 22, 2017 Vancouver Observer
By: Lincoln Kaye

“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” says the Bard and, for me, B.C.’s current smoke blanket brings home the point. The coppery miasma strikes like a brutally unnatural early-onset autumn.

Not the crisp Vancouver autumn we’ve come to cherish, nor yet Keats’ “season of mellow fruitfulness.” More like Thomas Hood’s senescent “Old Autumn,” who “stands shadowless like silence.”

Particularly the silence of the bees, their hum conspicuous in its absence. We miss them now that they’re so abruptly excised from the soundscape, “smoked” into torpor.

So when Ronghua “Ron” Lin, PhD – Dr. Bee, as he styles himself – invited us to his still-buzzing apiary nestled amidst a four-acre “bee-loud glade” of blueberries, we happily drove out to the edge of the Fraser Valley, grateful for the promised reprieve of sonic summer.

Lin is probably the biggest employer in Pitt Meadows, with a staff of 1.2 million. That’s about 2,000 hives, at roughly 60,000 bees apiece. He also has as many as 20 human staffers at a time (the work is seasonal) to tend the bees, harvest and process the honey and other products, run his spiffy new retail outlet and pick the berries.

He pays pickers 90¢/pound – twice Pitt Meadows’ going rate, but worth it, he says, considering the profusion, sweetness, juiciness and delicacy of his all-organic, 100% bee-pollinated crop. The pay premium typifies Lin’s cut-no-corners approach to the whole bee-keeping operation.

That makes him an outlier in an industry sadly prone to chicanery. Not for him, the premature harvest of honey before it has a chance to ferment naturally through the action of the bees’ own enzymes. Nor artificially cooking it to boil off excess water faster than the natural evaporation rate of the hive’s internal 95(F) heat. Nor dosing the product with refined high-fructose syrup for an extra sugar high and that “alluring” translucency.

The honey on Lin’s shelves is stolidly opaque – a sign of complex, more readily granulated glucose sugars. In hue, the jars range from the ivory opalescence of his “ice honey” (for which he trucks his hives up to the Rockies near Jasper) to the pale Chablis tint of his spring vintage (culled from Fraser valley wildflowers) to the blonde luxuriance of his clover honey to the rich amber that his bees distil from the apiary’s surrounding acres of blueberries.

Each variety is even more distinctive in taste and in “mouth-feel” than in colour. Lin hands out little wooden stirring sticks to savour the subtle aromatics of each sample jar’s unique terroir.

I furrow my brow and half-close my eyes, the very picture of concentrated gourmet discernment – El Exigentein the tasting room. Buty wife, Meilang, sees through the pose. She knows flat-out Poohbear honey-greed when she sees it, and murmurs a warning to watch my sugar intake.

Not to worry, Lin cheerfully rejoins. Honey’s anti-carcinogenic health benefits are well worth the caloric cost. And, as for the blood sugar levels, he’s got an App (or an apiary) for that.

He hands us a six-page pamphlet of related apiary products purportedly beneficial for everything from diabetes to high cholesterol to insomnia to arthritis to prostatic hyperplasia to allergies. The nostrums come in pills, sprays, creams, serums, salves and granular sprinkles. Most are low- or no-sugar. And half of them are honeybee derivatives and byproducts that we’d never even heard of before.

To demystify the inventory, he leads us over to a glass encased hive. It’s about the size of DaVinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, but a lot more frenetic, acrawl with tens of thousands of insects. They bustle about the waxy combs, here clearing out cells for new larvae, there sealing up caches of honey.

Foragers sally forth through a glass tube connecting the hive to the outside air. Upon their return, other worker bees harvest payloads of accumulated pollen and gummy plant resins from their hind legs. These, in turn, are processed (respectively) into honey stores or “propolis” mortar, the antiseptic gum that seals and disinfects the colony.

Yet other workers tend “nurseries” of pupating larvae. And some construction crews build enlarged gestational “cups” for a new generation of “Virgin Queens.” When they hatch, these virgins will fight each other to the death for succession as the next reigning ovipositor of the hive.

Those cups become the repositories for “royal jelly,” the pollen infused, nutrient-rich (A,C,D,E&K vitamins, + amino acids + ’10-HAD) “super food” reserved exclusively for start-up larvae and gestating Queens. Available from Doctor Bee in capsules or freeze-dried.

Also available: straight pollen, honey’s unprocessed precursor, a “nutritional powerhouse,” according to Dr. Bee’s brochure, comprising “the male reproductive material of higher plants.” Lin likes it sprinkled on his morning yogurt.

Next on the Honeyland menu: “bee venom therapy” – controlled bee stings offered as a nonpareil antidote to arthritis, inflammations, obstructive scarring and even multiple sclerosis. Lin himself has been stung “too many times to count,” in the line of duty.

“A bee sting is lucky,” he swears. That’s why beekeepers exceed any other profession in longevity, he’s convinced. (Nevertheless, he keeps anaphylactic shock kits handy for clients, just in case).

And then there’s the mysterious propolis, the most idiosyncratic bee by-product of all, inextricably linked to the terroir of its particular provenance. Renaissance master-luthiers – Stradivarius, Guarneri – valued its acoustic properties as an ingredient in violin varnish, but the formula is now lost. So is the secret whereby ancient Egyptian embalmers used it to preserve pharaonic mummies for millennia.

But, for modern day customers, Doctor Bee has tamed propolis into capsules, tinctures and throat sprays with scientifically attested antiviral, antifungal and antioxidant properties

By the light of his cellphone, Lin picks out the currently reigning Queen in his glass-encased hive. She is distinguishable only by the slightly elongated abdomen with which she lays 1000-2000 eggs per day. Some the eggs she will fertilize with the sperm supply she’s accumulated in her once-in-a-lifetime nuptial Flight of Bliss. Fertilized eggs turn into females, either sterile Workers or (a very few) wannabe Queens.

Unfertilized eggs become male drones, thousands of them, whose sole mission in life is attempting to mate – in mid-air! – with a flying Queen at an aerial trysting site. Only 20 or so drones (per mating queen) will succeed, for which they’ll pay with their lives as she retains their gonads, guts and all. The rejected suitors hardly fare any better, either. Their Worker-sisters shove them out of the hive to starve.

Lin recounts these details with almost erotic relish. His fascination with bees goes back to his childhood in Quanzhou, Fujian. After joining China’s first-ever cadre of university-trained bee scientists for undergraduate study, he came to Canada (Guelph and Simon Fraser Universities) for graduate work in both apiology and biochemistry.

For all Lin’s evident passion for the subject, the racy polyamory of the bees strikes me as a far cry from the Protestant – almost Puritan – work ethic imputed to them in the homiletic Isaac Watts doggerel I was taught as a child.

More apt to the Honeyland scene, perhaps, is the quizzical T’ang dynasty quatrain of “Hermit Luo” (羅隱, A.D. 833-909) that Meilang learned in her Taiwan childhood: “Whether on the plains or the peaks/ Wherever you look, the same scene unfolds:/ Gleaning a hundred flowers to render their honey/ Whose is the toil, and whose the sweetness?” (不論平地與山尖,無限風光盡被占。採得百花成蜜後,為誰辛苦為誰甜).

With this matter-of-fact Chinese take on hymenoptera husbandry, no wonder the bulk of Honeyland’s market is among the Lower Mainland’s Chinese community. Lin’s six-page English brochure is expanded to eight closely printed pages in its Chinese edition, replete with abstruse, hardly translatable terms from the Chinese pharmacopeia. And Doctor Bee has lately opened up new retail outlets in the Chinese enclaves of Richmond and Burnaby.

But there’s more at play here than business-savvy niche-marketing, we come to realize in Lin’s rhapsodies about the subtleties of the hive mind and the intricate symbiosis of bees, plants and humans. It’s overly simplistic to read the Hermit Luo quatrain as a straight-up parable of exploitation between the “castes” of the hive or the bees and their human beekeepers.

Who toils? Each buzzing, bustling little dab of protoplasm in the colony, from Queen to drone.

And for whose sweetness? Why, that of the collective hive as a whole, Lin assures us. The entire colony is an exquisitely adapted “super-organism” that far transcends the sum of its individual monads.

But that long-evolved super-being is now threatened with colony collapse; apiculture trends and practicescould make or break it in the next few decades. And a world without bees would be a world without burgeoning summer, but rather a perennial, blistering, shadowless autumn.

So go out to Pitt Meadows and taste what’s left of this bee-glad summer while you still can. This weekend, Honeyland throws open its doors for a two-day “Bees and Blueberries” Festival.

There will be clowns and games, pie- and ice cream-eating contests, rockabilly crooners and kiddie beauty queens. Don’t miss the tours, demo’s and mini-seminars.

For the intrepid, there could even be a chance to grow a “bee beard.” What better way to get close and personal with a “super-organism?”

If you’re “lucky,” you might even be favoured with a sting or two.

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