Beekeeping: A Good Buzz


It’s not the bees’ honey-making ability of Beekeeping that intrigues van Westendorp (he calls it “a wonderful by-product”) but their interconnectedness with the natural world that leaves him with a good buzz. Paul van Westendorp, B.C.’s provincial apiculturist in charge of overseeing and regulating the 50,000-odd colonies of bees in B.C., practically buzzes himself. In a cramped office where jars of honey sit on the bookshelf and walls are plastered with images of fuzzy winged insects, the 50-something-year-old’s passion is palpable as he reminisces about his first encounter with the insects to which he’s devoted his life’s work. He was a young boy growing up in Holland when his grade three teacher took the class to visit a local beekeeper. “I remember that as a pivotal event,” he says. “I was so totally taken by the warmth of the sun, the light and the scent of warm wax and everything else that came from the hives.” A couple of years later, at the age of 11, he took an introductory course in beekeeping, and he was hooked. It’s not the bees’ honey-making ability that intrigues van Westendorp (he calls it “a wonderful by-product”) but their interconnectedness with the natural world. “A lot of people don’t realize that bees are an absolutely critical component of the environment,” he says, leaning forward to fix his visitor with an intense gaze. “Plants have one big handicap: they cannot just yank themselves out of the soil, walk over, have some fun and walk back again.” The value of B.C.’s insect-pollination-dependent crops, he says, is estimated at $160 million to $200 million a year. He starts to list the crops that wouldn’t exist without these flying critters: “Cherries, apples, pears, peaches, apricots, almonds, raspberries, blueberries…” He goes on, ending the list with “cotton.” He pauses, then repeats emphatically: “Cotton!” That’s why his job, guarding against bee disease and conducting field trials, is so important. It’s also why the media have been swarming with stories about colony collapse disorder – a mysterious ­phenomenon in which worker bees vanish overnight. The doomsday stories have got plenty of press, but van Westendorp insists the problem is confined to the southern U.S. Any decline in B.C.’s bee population this year was likely due to our harsh winter, he believes. “We were cozy and warm in our houses but nature out there suffered,” he points out. Working hands-on with bees begs one obvious question: does he ever get stung? “I get stung quite often,” is the matter-of-fact reply. “It depends on how nasty the bees are. If the girls are in a bad mood, they will let me know that they’re in a bad mood.”