Sweet Deal

600px-Single_Blueberry

(photo by Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons)

I recently authored a report for the Vancity Credit Union about economic opportunities with bees and pollination. There’s lots of gloom and doom out there about bees, but there also are many opportunities. Vancity is a wonderful organization, deeply imbedded in community, and publishes regular in-depth reports about economic issues in British Columbia. The full report can be found at “Sweet Deal: The value of bees to British Columbia’s economy” but here’s a few highlights:

Honeybees and wild bees are vital to B.C.’s economy, producing honey and pollinating berry, tree fruit, oilseed and vegetable crops, with a total annual current value of close to $500 million in products and pollinating services, and excellent potential to rise to $553 million annually within five years.

Pollination is the primary, and growing, economic benefit of bees, valued in B.C. at $468 million in 2014, a 67% increase since 2001.

The number of beekeepers in B.C. has risen 35% since 2009, with notable increase in beekeepers under the age of 40.

Blueberries are B.C.’s most highly valued crop, and provide a strong example of how insufficient pollination is limiting yields, increasing costs to consumers and diminishing profits for farmers. Blueberry growers are short 10,000 to 20,000 honeybee colonies each year, and fields have insufficient wild bees, resulting in $10 million to $20 million in losses.

Reducing pesticide use and enhancing habitats in and around blueberry farms would increase wild bee populations and improve pollination, boosting yields and profits for growers and reducing retail prices for consumers.

Declining bee populations are one symptom of increasingly harmful agricultural practices. Canadian pesticide use increased 25% from 87.5 million kilograms in 2008 to 109 million kilograms in 2014. Development of organic and sustainable farming practices would stimulate more diverse and abundant wild bee populations, reduce pesticide use, improve human and environmental health and create value-added options for B.C. growers.

A favourable climate in southwestern B.C. allows the production and sale of bees and small nucleus colonies across Canada and for export, with an immediate potential annual market of at least $10 to $15 million. This figure could grow to $30 million by 2021 if we begin exporting bees to the U.S. Expanding our local industry would also increase B.C. colony numbers to more closely align with blueberry pollination needs.

Consumer interest in locally produced honey has grown, giving B.C. beekeepers an opportunity to focus on retail sales of well-branded local honey. The total value of retail sales for B.C. honey doubled from $8 to $16 million between 2014 and 2015, reflecting an increase in retail prices from $4.60/lb. in 2014 to $7.45/lb. in 2015.

In 2014, we imported 573,200 pounds of honey, the equivalent of one-fifth of provincial production, so there is room and opportunity in the retail market for at least $3 million more B.C. honey production.

Government working in partnership with beekeepers and growers could stimulate province-wide branding of honey and bee-pollinated crops as local and sustainable, supported by bee-friendly practices advertising and branding. Development of appropriate labels and marketing strategies for all B.C. farm products would be powerful tools to stimulate bee conservation while adding value.

Comments welcome:

Fragments

9874

Poetry and science may seem to have little in common, but they do share one trait: building from fragments. I’m collaborating with a wonderful poet, Renee Sarojini Saklikar, on the Honey, Hives and Poetry project, in which we’ve been reading together at events from her poems and my prose, and writing some new material in response to each other’s work.

As Renee puts it: “One of my poetry obsessions is the fragment. Each time I read from my long poems I select fragments, further reducing the pieces, a reductive process that speaks to me of possibility . . .”

Scientific research is simultaneously reductive while discovering meaning by repeatedly recombining small bits of information in different ways. Experiments resemble poems trimmed down to their simplest bytes, expressing the scientist’s hope that disparate data might assemble into the fullness of story, revealing objective truth considerably more profound than its constituent parts.

So it was that words became a line and eventually a poem as we unraveled the identity and function of the honeybee queen pheromone over close to two decades of research. My chemistry colleague, the late Keith Slessor, had become interested in the retinue of ten to twelve worker bees that surround the queen, licking and touching their antennae to her furiously for one to two minutes each. Our hypothesis was that they were picking up the queen’s pheromones and transmitting them throughout the nest.

We had made extracts from dead queens to use in identifying her chemical signature, but had no way of determining whether worker bees responded. One day, in frustration, one of our students put a dab of extract onto a glass pipette and thrust it into into a cage of bees, exclaiming, “Take that, you bloody bees.” To her surprise, they formed a retinue around the glass as if it were a queen.

We had found our bioassay, but it still took tens of thousands of assays excising, macerating, extracting, eluting and observing over two decades to identify nine compounds that work in a synergistic mix, attracting worker bees to attend their monarch. Each individual pheromone we identified represented another fragment that then had to be tested in combination with the growing number of other compounds, until eventually the full poem of the complex honeybee queen pheromone grew from its nine simple words.

It’s a thing of beauty, this multi-fragment queen pheromone, an elixir of elegant function, reminiscent of the elusive perfection captured in the best poetry, where snippets of language weave together into a whole much more compelling than its individual parts.

I imagine writing poetry is like that, a mental image of Renee at work in her writing laboratory, testing combinations of words together, rejecting innumerable linguistic dead ends until the etymological data tell her the poem is done.

It’s fragments coalescing into meaning, at the junction where science and poetry intersect on common ground.

(In memory of Keith Slessor, a poet in chemistry)

Comments welcome: