When life gets chaotic and you need a new perspective, slow down and consider bees, says Dr. John Dornan.
“Bees have been around longer than humans,” Dornan said on the roof of Saint John Regional Hospital. “Since bees have been on flowers on the planet – 50 million years. It’s a process that goes on over time.”
Not only that. Bees are vital to “helping keep our crops alive and sustainable.” “For example, blueberries. About 30 percent of the blueberry crop depends on bee pollination.”
A physician and endocrinologist for more than two decades, Dornan has been a beekeeper like his father before him.
WATCH | What about Dr. John Dornan’s bees?
This year, he made headlines as president and CEO of Horizon Health, a position he held for just four months before Prime Minister Blaine Higgs publicly fired him in July.
“If we don’t get better management results in our hospitals, we can’t get better health care,” said Higgs, who sacked Health Minister Dorothy Shephard and sacked the boards of both Horizon and Vitalité health networks on the same day.
A terrible reproach, one might say.
But Dornan chose not to discuss it now. He continues to see patients at the hospital, but on this October afternoon he was busy managing the beehives on the outside corner of the Regional roof. Installed in the spring of 2022, the two hives contain approximately 120,000 bees.
Dornan placed a divider between the top and bottom boxes of the two beehives. Inside each comb are eight to 10 frames on which the bees build a beeswax comb, filling the hexagonal cells with honey and larvae. Installing a separator forces the bees to gather in the bottom box so that the upper frames can be removed and the honey extracted.
Later, “I’ll put each frame in a centrifuge, two frames, and spin it,” Dornan said. “The honey will flow down the comb to the wall of the centrifuge.”
The volunteer beekeeping gig requires some heavy lifting.
Each frame loaded with wax and honey weighs about 10 kilograms. The Horizon has a no-smoking policy, but “we make an exception for bees,” Dornan said as he placed an antique bee smoker to make the bugs more docile.
Right now, he said, “they have a little bit more work to do.” “There’s only a little capped honey, and if you look in here, a lot of it is still uncapped liquid.”
After the bees are done for the season, the 100 pounds or more of honey collected will be donated to Horizon to be used for fundraising or giveaways, Dornan said.
Trust the process
To get the best results in beekeeping, Dornan said, it’s important to trust the process.
“People have tried to get bigger boxes, different boxes, different systems that they hope will work better, but nothing works better than what they call a Langstroth hive,” he said.
“Sometimes you have to change things, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it works.”
Chris Davey, a beekeeper and vice president of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association, agreed that keeping bees intact for generations is a natural way to benefit the environment.
“They help pollinate native fruits and flowers,” Davey said, adding that beehives in a community “can help create a more vibrant, healthy community without any spray.”
The idea of businesses and workplaces installing beehives “is growing in the sense that even commercial businesses are trying to represent a natural, organic approach,” he said.
On a recent visit to Nova Scotia, he noted that IKEA in Halifax installed beehives in their backyard. Many others in Atlantic Canada followed suit, including CBC New Brunswick’s Fredericton office.
“The big failure is community charters,” Davey said. “A lot of communities have embraced it, others have resistance to it. I think people need to embrace it. There’s strength in numbers.”
To help, the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association offers mentorship to new beekeepers, Davey said, and holds workshops throughout the year.
Dornan said there are similarities between beekeeping and his medical career.
Both are life-saving professions for one.
In the summer of 2022, preliminary data showed that nearly half of Canada’s honey bee colonies did not survive the winter, the largest rate of colony loss in the country in 20 years.
But the main similarity is that both are “very happy,” Dornan said. “I have always enjoyed my work as a doctor [and] as an administrator. At the end of the day, I feel satisfied, and at the end of the day, it’s the same with these bees.”
Like humans, bees have different jobs throughout their lives.
“When they’re born, they’ll just work in the hive: help them, feed the young bees, help make wax. Then as they mature, they’ll start foraging. They’ll go out into the environment and collect nectar and pollen and bring it back.”
Beekeeping at Regional will remain permanent while Dornan looks for “other opportunities in the province or elsewhere that may be a good match for my skills in health care.”
According to him, it is about mutual respect.
“I’ve learned in 23 years to be patient and not get too involved. When I’m working with a team, you can overstep, you can micromanage.
“Some people go into hives every day and you don’t have to. You’re just causing trouble. Just be patient. [and] let the bees do what they naturally do.”