This is the Life: With bees dying, we need to take notice

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If there is a modern-day canary in the coal mine it is most surely the honeybee. Long ago, canaries were carried into underground mines to monitor the quality of the air while workers went about their businesses of breaking coal from seams. If a canary fell from its perch it was an indication that poisonous gases were gathering and humans had better clear out if they didn’t want also to end their lives toes-up deep below the ground’s surface.

Unlike canaries, though, honeybees play an integral role in the day-to-day lives of humans. They pollinate many of the plants and trees we rely on for as much as a third of our food. So when colonies die off in unprecedented numbers, we had best pay attention. By we, of course, I mean the people who actually make laws. With mounting scientific evidence that pesticides containing neonicotinoids are a contributing factor in killing honeybees, some countries have moved quickly to put a moratorium, or an outright ban, on their use. Not so in Canada, where our government does not take kindly to science.

I fell in love with honeybees a couple of years ago when I suited up to do a story on honey production. Local farmer and beekeeper Joel Comer gave me an up-close look at the inner workings of hives and it is an experience I will never forget. Last weekend, I spent some time in the gardens at Summerhill Pyramid Winery, which I visit regularly to do research for a book I am writing. My guide in the gardens was Gabe Cipes, who is one of three brothers who work at the winery that their father founded nearly 30 years ago.

Summerhill adopted organic growing practices not long after the vineyards were established and, with Gabe’s help, has in recent years gone even further, embracing permaculture and biodynamic practices. Gardens at Summerhill produce a large amount of the produce used in the winery’s Sunset Organic Bistro, but they have a much deeper importance. Along with the forests and marshes left in their natural state on the property, they contribute to a more diverse ecosystem than can be found in typical, manicured vineyards.

The gardens aren’t what I have come to expect, having spent many happy summers in the long, straight rows of vegetables and flowers planted in Fernie by my English grandfather. Weeds were considered an enemy and hoed or pulled as fast as they could emerge between the planted rows. At first glance, the gardens at Summerhill might not even be recognized as such. Wild, or indigenous, grasses and other plants grow among the dozens of plantings of vegetables, fruit bushes, herbs and trees. Much of what Gabe and his team have planted is set on berms, small rises with old logs buried beneath (to create a favourable environment that holds water and provides a home for desirable insects and fungi).

As we wander along, Gabe points out companion plantings, where a couple different herbs surround a tree, chosen for its ability to add nitrogen into the soil. A trench system, along with the berms themselves, helps collect and direct rainwater that runs downward through the vineyards on the sloped property. Every few steps, Gabe stoops to pick a leaf or flower, handing it to me to sample while describing its food or medicinal properties. We come upon some brilliant red poppies in which honeybees from Gabe’s nearby hives are teeming, clearly excited by what they are finding in the large flowers. Between some rows of grapevines, Gabe points out low-growing herbs, some now in full bloom. They are planted to survive the trips a tractor will make to manage the vines throughout the growing season. More diversity, more value added to the land. More flowers for bees and an attractant for insects that consume the leaf borers, which can devastate grape leaves.

Summerhill Pyramid Winery is far from being one of the province’s largest wine producers, but it is by no standard small, either. Gabe, and his father, brothers and many employees, are acutely aware that if they can demonstrate that organic, permaculture and biodynamic practices can add to the financial bottom line, others will follow suit, adding to the long-term viability of the land in one of the most geographically diverse growing areas in the world.

While we walk, Gabe speaks only with optimism that we are learning how to be more responsible in the way we treat our land, air and water, that we are finally coming to understand the need to treat those resources with the respect they are due. The honeybees, if we could understand their form of communication, would no doubt express their gratitude.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.