North to Ontario

Bee Map
Minnesota’s North Shore

I like to keep up with and be aware of what is occurring apiculturally in the area. Person X in this area is having queen issues, or Person Y had their top-bar hive tipped over by the wind. For the most part, these bits of information that filter in are interesting and you are able to offer the occasional tip. Other times, the information seriously piques my interest.

The Arrowhead Region of Minnesota is comprised of three counties; from west to Northeast, you have St. Louis (the county I am in), Lake, and forming the tip of the arrowhead, Cook County. Cook County’s northern boundary is also the border with Canada.

Through one beekeeping group, I heard that there was a loose association of people in Cook County going by the name "Cook County Hobby Beekeepers," (now known as North Shore Hobby Beekeepers) and they were very interested in one particular hybrid race of bees: the Thunder Bay Bee Breed. The T-triple-Bs are a cross of Buckfast bees and Carniolan bees (Buckfast have a heritage that includes bees originating from Northern Italy, France, England, Turkey, Greece, and several docile races from Africa).

Dean Harron's Bee Yard
Dean Harron’s Bee Yard, near Thunder Bay, Ontario

Through email, I corresponded with one of the originators of the T-triple-Bs, Jeanette Momot, a former apiculture inspector in the Thunder Bay region, Jeanette has worked with bees for thirty years in the Thunder Bay area, and prior to this, was a honeybee-research graduate student at Ohio State. Talking with Jeanette, via email, I found that the Thunder Bay region is quite unique with regard to apiculture and the pests that honeybees frequently have else where in the world. The uniqueness comes from part geographic isolation, part politics and part on the qui vive.

Thunder Bay and Canada, in general, are isolated from the United States simply by being separate countries. They have separate laws which govern what can be brought into one another. In 1987, Canada made a move against the Varroa destructor – the deer tick of the apiculture world. The move Canada made was an import ban on live honeybees from the United States. Since 1987, the importation ban was altered to allow certain importation from Hawaii.

Geographically, the Thunder Bay area and surrounding municipalities are in the middle of nowhere. I do say this with reverence for the area. Thunder Bay is Canada’s 43rd largest city, but it is 433 miles (698 km) from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and 439 miles (707 km) from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Thunder Bay, however, is only 190 miles (303 km) from Duluth, MN, where we happen to be located.

Jeanette Momot is the force behind the vigilance in keeping varroa out. Having been the apiculture inspector for the Thunder Bay district for fifteen years, she established herself as the go-to person for things honeybee-related. She has tried very hard to keep out foreign honeybee stocks. When a package of honeybees arrives at the Thunder Bay postoffice, she is often told of the arrival and can get to work on tracking down the origins of the package. If the package originated in a region known to have varroa mites, she will make every effort to convince the package’s owner to destroy the bees before possibly contaminating the local bee population. In return, she and other beekeepers will replace the destroyed package with bees from their own apiaries. She sees the move as a small price to pay to keep her bees and the rest of the bees in the region free from varroa.

Passport and Cash-money
Passport and Cash-money

Back in the States, the North Shore Hobby Beekeepers were busy planning a trip to import honeybees from Jeanette and another beekeeper, Dean Harron on June 4, 2011. I corresponded through email with several of NSHBs and managed to get my name on the list for a package of the mite-free bees. I also offered to help with the importation efforts. Have passport, will travel.

Most of the NSHBs live up the North Shore near the towns of Hovland, Grand Marais and Grand Portage. My father, a retired accountant with no penchant for bees, but a hankering for tagging along, came with for the trip. We left the Duluth-area around 7:00 am, and arrived in Grand Marais 2.1/2 hours later. We met up with others and started toward Grand Portage and the Pigeon River border crossing. The weather was perfect for our cross-border bee heist, as we called it.

Arriving at Jeanette’s, the other half of the convoy had already arrived and they were busy scoping out the apiary. Ten packages would be taken from Jeanette, and ten from Dean Harron – who lives 7 km from Jeanette. The sun was out, and occasionally, the wind would drop. This is northwestern Ontario, you would think there maybe a chill in the air, but no, it was hot by my standard – 80 degrees F (26.7 C). I decided to take a chance and took off my beesuit. The heat was getting to me. I stepped back a distance and mainly took photographs. At one point, I felt like I was getting a migraine, but looking back, I was dehydrated. Two bottles of water and a bottle of Gatorade, I felt much better.

Most of the folks from NSHBs kept talking about how unique it was to have mite-free bees. I found it more interesting to have found a unique, genetic pool of bees that have been successfully overwintering for years. I am less interested in maintaining a completely varroa-free environment (if that was the case, I would have failed; hive #10 – the spicy, overwintered italians, which are now transforming into spicier russian-italians, have a small varroa population). In some future post, I will go into more detail on what I would like to ultimately achieve, in short, I want to breed my own northern-hardy bees. The gentleness of the Thunder Bay Bees is a very positive trait given the spiciness of the Russian bees (they like to head-butt your bee veil).

Dean's Overwintering Setup
Dean’s Overwintering Setup

After Jeanette’s, we headed to Dean’s house and apiary. The heist there went much quicker than at Jeanette’s. It was also nice to seen Dean’s overwintering setup; it was composed of mostly 2″ thick rigid foam insulation constructed into a large box that surrounds the hives. Top and bottom entrances were then cut into the foam to allow access for the bees.

Overall, twenty 3 lb packages were brought back into the US. We dropped off packages on our way back to the Duluth area at several of the NSHBs. It was a great adventure, and I hope to go, again, next year.

For more photos, visit here.