Changemakers: Master Beekeeper, Iain Glass.

Master beekeeper Iain Glass works with local apiarists to help the Island's struggling honey-bee population.

Iain Glass. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Apiarists around B.C. have long been struggling to stabilize and grow dwindling honey bee populations, but a B.C. expert has been working to prove it’s not better parasite medication or masses of imported bees that will save Vancouver Island’s shrinking apiaries — subsequently improving the pollination of local crops and the production of honey.

According to master beekeeper Iain Glass, who has spent the better part of a decade experimenting with bee populations to determine their strengths, all it takes is isolating and reproducing the 10 to 15 per cent of healthy, treatment-and-stress-free honeybees
that occur naturally, and letting the rest die off.

Now in the second year of a four-year mandate to improve the Island’s bees through selective breeding, Glass is working with local beekeepers under a provincially funded program called Ethical Bees through Bee BC, which supplies equipment and funding to the project.

“The thought was to say, ‘Let’s start at a grassroots basis and show people [that medicating bees] is not necessary,” says Glass, who is building a local, treatment-free queen bee breeding industry, which can be used to establish healthy colonies. He is also educating apiarists and farmers about the benefits of his approach — doing one without the other is pointless.

“You can go and make a better local bee, but if people don’t know you’ll never scale it up,” says Glass.

Around 30 hobbyist and small-scale beekeepers have been training under Glass, who has passed on his methods of testing and selecting bees that are naturally resistant to the most common, destructive maladies like varroa and foulbrood.

“I saw this as an opportunity to first test out some of the genetic rapid adaptation principles and then secondly scale it and get a lot more people involved,” says Glass, adding that beekeeping strategy is no more complex than general animal husbandry.

“It was an effective way of saying, ‘Who is really interested in changing the status quo on Vancouver Island?’ And we’ve got some nice momentum out of that.”

What’s the first thing you do each day (to set the tone for productivity)? 

We have a team discussion prior to the start of each day setting the goals and objectives. We also give pointers on how to get more efficient — as an example, we talk about “slow down to get faster” and explain the application of small details to achieve this.

When you stall on an idea or problem, how do you work through it?

Most of what we are doing is scaling a series of smaller experiments. We also read the appropriate peer-reviewed literature and also review similar grant-fund-program goals and results being undertaken by other groups of North American beekeepers.

Who inspires you?

There are research groups I have a large amount of admiration for. The top two would be the United States Department of Agriculture Bee Lab in Baton Rouge, and Tom Seeley at Cornell. The success of what we have accomplished to date factors largely. And results/validation inspires me. The queens we introduced onto Vancouver Island last year overwintered without chemical treatment and were good honey producers this year.

How do you decompress?

Exchanging ideas with like-minded beekeepers, and exercise.

This article is from the December/January 2019 issue of Douglas.