Article and photography by Mimi Jones-Taylor.
Let’s be honest, people in general don’t like insects. We run from things that we believe are put on the earth to harm us – mosquitoes, spiders, centipedes, wasps – but instinctively, we make an exception for the small and mighty bee. We know that bees are good creatures – they make this wonderful elixir of life called honey that some of us dream about – but on the other hand, they have those stinger things. So we tend to try to leave them alone, or we gently swat them away. For those of us in the know, if there were no bees, there would be no planet earth. Bees keep plants alive through occidental pollination. Without pollination, vegetation in general would be unable to procreate, bear fruit, and survive. This is the simple message of a little movie made by Jerry Seinfeld a few years ago called Bee Movie. One day, my young son, after watching Bee Movie for the umpteenth time, asked me, “Mommy, is Bee Movie real?”
I had to be honest with him. “Parts of it, yes, and most if it, no. All worker bees are female. All behives have a queen. And the male drones don’t leave the hive at all. But they do make honey.”
My son was just getting over a cold, so before he went to bed that night, I brought him a spoon of raw honey I had downstairs. As I stuck the spoon in his mouth, I got a brilliant idea. The honey on the spoon had come from Backyard Bee Works, owned by Mark and Shelley McAlpine. I asked my son if he wanted to go see how bees really lived. He was thrilled and enthusiastic. We ended up having a fun time visiting with Mark and Shelley, my son learned the difference between a bee and a wasp, and we left with a 3kg tub of the fruit of the bees’ labours.
Mark and Shelley make the best honey I have ever had on the planet. Given that my honey experience is limited to Canada, with a taste of some from a jar a colleague had brought back from her trip to France, I would still pit Backyard Bee Works’ honey against any other raw honey of quality on the planet. I recently asked Mark and Shelley to do an interview for Eatin’s. Instead of editing it, here it is in its entirety, since who better to talk about their honey than Mark and Shelley themselves.
What made you and Shelley interested in honey making and beekeeping in the first place? When did you get your first hive and how did your first season go?
Mark: I had a good friend who worked at the University of Guelph’s Honeybee labs and I’d ask him questions about bees. Mostly out of curiosity, but every time conversation turned to bees his enthusiasm for the subject became infectious. It was like falling into the rabbit-hole – he had so much information in his brain about bees and even though I had never thought about them before I became fascinated. In 2007, with his encouragement, I took a weekend beginner’s beekeeping course at the University, and purchased our first bees from a local beekeeper early that same summer. I set up two hives in our backyard. I don’t know that Shelley was too happy about the idea of several thousand bees in our backyard, but it was soon apparent that the hives and bees weren’t going to interfere with our normal use of the yard. It’s not like all the bees are just hanging out in your backyard, they’re flying off all over the city gathering nectar, so unless you stood right by the hives you’d hardly notice them.
Shelley: I was absolutely terrified to have bees in our backyard. No joke! I didn’t have a lot of knowledge and assumed they would be like the Seinfeld Movie “Bee Movie”. I wasn’t interested to have thousands of angry insects who thought we were stealing their honey. I overcame my ignorance by taking a bee keeping course at the University of Guelph. Taking the beekeeping course was a great way to get comfortable with the idea of having bees in our yard. Mark: We did very well that year too. We were told not to expect too much in the way of honey since the hives were brand new and the bees would have to build up their numbers and fill out the hive, but by the end of summer we had about 5 or 6 full honey supers from each hive, with each honey super containing roughly 40-45lbs of honey.
Why the decision to expand to multiple hives? Not just in your yard but in yards across St. Patrick’s Ward? At that point were you interested in selling the honey or were you trying to experiment with nectar flavours, bee output, etc.?
Mark: Healthy hives with a good Queen will eventually hit a point where quite naturally the hive is ready to swarm. Basically what happens is that within the hive, all the signals indicate that the hive is doing well, food is plentiful and the current hive is close to being full up with bees, honey and pollen, so it’s time to split the colony and spread. The queen will lay a successor, and then leave the hive taking roughly half the bees and honey stores with her. They establish a new colony and the newly hatched queen takes over the existing hive. As a beekeeper and a good neighbour, we don’t want the bees to swarm and become a nuisance to those living around us, so there are ways to split a healthy hive into two colonies that fulfills the swarm instinct of the bees and allows you to expand the number of hives you have. With healthy colonies this can happen quite often, so very quickly you can go from two hives to four to 8 to how ever many you can handle. We also had friends in the area who were interested in supporting bee populations but were not wanting to keep their own hives. We were able to put new hives in yards around our neighbourhood, St Patricks Ward (or simply The Ward if you live in Guelph,) which has a direct benefit on local gardens, fruit trees, wild flowers, and vegetable patches, and allowed us to expand our hives without overwhelming our own backyard.
Shelley: The more we read about the history of bee keeping (a particular interest of mine) the more we accepted the fact that bees and people have closely coexisted, living right next to each other. You can still see in many historical homes where people had a divot in the outer wall of their house near the front door, to house bee hives. It’s sad that we are so removed from this relationship in 2014! Expanding our hives outside our own yard was a way to share our growing love of honey bees.
Mark: As far as the honey goes, even with only a couple of hives we soon had more honey then we’d ever be able to make personal use of, so we started selling to friends and family. We have some extremely loyal customers, and each year we quickly sell out.
One of the most obvious differences between your honey and the mass-produced honeys people find in supermarkets is that your product is made in small batches and is unpasteurized. Many of our readers may have seen craft honey available at farmer’s markets or roadside produce shops as well. Can you describe the differences in process and flavour between your honey with its wildflower origins versus a single-flower honey that is found at places like the farmer’s markets?
Mark: Every beekeeper has a different set up from the next, but in a general sense when you’re dealing with a local beekeeper — the folks set up at the farmer’s market, a small family run beekeeping business, or like Shelley and I, hobby beekeepers — you’ll likely find that hives stay in one place and the bees are free to gather nectar from whatever happens to be in bloom. The taste is local, it varies from year to year and there’s no way to duplicate the flavour or make it homogenous. So much depends on the weather, what grows in your area, what’s in bloom, etc. The interesting thing is that each hive’s honey can taste completely different from a neighbouring hive, depending on where they go to gather pollen. You can’t control what flowers they go to — commercial beekeepers can place a hive somewhere in the middle of kilometers of say, clover, to get a particular flavour, but our bees go to whatever happens to be in bloom, and gather a multitude of nectar and pollen, so every year the flavour is different and surprising.
Shelley: As city bees they have free reign to harvest whatever various types of pollen they need to feed their babies (the cutest thing ever is watching a baby bee nibble free from her cell!) or gather a particular type of nectar to help the health of a hive. They aren’t thinking about taste, they are concerned about the hive’s well being. Urban honey bees, like all bees, travel about several kilometers from their hive to gather nectar and pollen. If the only thing around is clover, that is the honey you will get.
Mark: The other big difference is that most commercial honey is a blend from many sources, including honey from overseas, that gets mixed to create a consistent flavour year after year. Some larger brands of commercial honey may not contain any Canadian honey at all, and recent investigations have revealed that some products labeled as honey are nothing more then a sugar syrup or corn syrup substitute. Commercial honey also tends to be heated at a high temperature before bottling in order for it to remain liquid for years. Raw honey does not undergo any heating or pasteurization. The honey is extracted from the frames and flows through a simple filter or two right into the bottles. Local honey will be alive with enzymes and nutrients, and bursting with natural flavour.
Shelley: It is about personal preference! By all means, please, please support your local bee keeper! They are gathering great honey. Be wary of large multinational corporations who purchase honey from all over the world. In a nut shell, buy local honey!
What is the average life span for a worker bee? How far will the average bee travel from and to the hive to gather nectar?
Mark: On average, a worker bee will live around 40 days. She’ll go through a number of jobs as she gets older, from nurse to guard to pollen and nectar gatherer before she eventually dies. Over winter these same workers will live for several months until the spring weather hits. A Queen bee can live for many years. We’ve had one of our Queens live for nearly 5 years before the hive replaced her. As far as distance goes, it’s been well documented that bees can travel 6km or more in search of pollen or nectar, and 3km is a common average given. That means our bees have likely visited every corner of the City of Guelph, and even well beyond they city limits. According to the Canadian Honey Council, honey bees need to visit around two million flowers and fly 80,000 km just to make one pound of honey.
Shelley: The only bees that don’t work are the male drones. Their only job is to make with a Queen from a different hive, and if they’re successful, they’ll die immediately after mating. Drones that don’t mate are tolerated around the hive until early fall, and then the female workers kick them out of the hive, and then they die.
How long does the process take? How many times a year will you harvest honey from each hive? Is there a time of year where you won’t gather or extract honey because you need to leave the bees to reproduce?
Shelley: Everything starts in spring when the temperature rises. First thing you do is check your hives, see how they did over the winter. It’s a good time to put out a simple sugar solution to feed the bees who are venturing out of the hives for the first time in months. You can also feed them a special protein patty, like a fondant, until there is pollen available.
Mark: Often the colony has eaten up all it’s winter honey stores, so all of this helps them when there’s no food available for the bees to gather. Over the summer as beekeepers we’ll keep an eye on the hives, adding empty honey supers as needed, making sure everyone’s happy and healthy within the hive, that the Queen is alive and laying eggs, that no pests are present and messing things up for the bees. Depending on the nectar flow that season, we might find ourselves with a bunch of full honey supers by mid summer, in which case we might choose to extract the honey and have a second fall flow too, or we might just extract all the honey you’ve gathered in early fall. As long as there is nectar flowing and they have space in the hive to store it, bees will make honey. Each hive will produce enough honey for the bees personal use, and everything going into an empty honey super stacked on the hive body is bonus honey.
Shelley: The nice thing is that the bees make so much extra honey beyond what the hive needs for itself, that as beekeepers and honey fans, we also benefit. At the same time we have to respect the life cycle of the honeybee. It’s always important to make sure that at the end of the season the bees have plenty of honey to see them through a long winter. We try and make sure we don’t take any honey later in the fall once we’ve taken the extra. So once the honey is gathered, extracted and bottled, it’s just a matter of preparing the hives for winter, and then starting everything over again the following spring.
With fruits and vegetables, harvests vary from year to year – soil conditions, rainfall, sunlight, heat, insects, and blight, among other things, contribute to how a farmer’s harvest will turn out. Sometimes they will have a plentiful harvest, but the produce will not be as ripe as they had hoped. Other times, the produce will be perfectly ripe and sweet but the quantity will be small. What are some of the annual perils that the hive can encounter that affects honey production? Do you also notice differences in the quality of the harvest?
Shelley: I personally get heart broken when there are warm days in the midst of winter. Our bees, like all honey bees in North America, originated from bees from Asia and Europe. Bees don’t hibernate over winter, they’re in the hive, active, creating enough heat to make the inside of the hive room temperature even on the coldest winter day. When you get a sudden warm day in the middle of January, a number of bees actually leave the hive, like they’re expecting a beautiful spring morning. Bees never poop in the hive, so they also take the time to relieve themselves after holding it in all winter. Sometimes they’ll land on the frozen snow or ground, and it’s sad to see frozen bees during the winter. I have gathered many of them, and the warmth of my hand has revived them- but not enough to be healthy members of the hive again.
Mark: There’s so many things that can affect the health of a hive, or how much honey is gathered over a season. Long, hot and dry summers can mean there’s no nectar to gather, early spring frost can kill blooming plants and mean that there’s no food for bees after a long winter. Or, like this current winter with cold weather that goes on and on, the bees can often use up their winter food supply and end up starving before the spring arrives. We’ve lost way more hives this year because of this exact problem, compared to other years. It’s a terrible thing to open a hive in the spring and see that the bees have run out of food and died, despite everything you did to prepare the hive for winter. That’s without even getting into the number of pests and diseases that target honey bees and their hives. Bees are in a precarious situation, and vulnerable to so much. In North America, wild honeybees colonies basically no longer exist — there are lots of other wild native bees out there still, but specifically honeybees in the wild have pretty much died out from the various diseases that kill a hive when left untreated. If you see a honeybee on a flower in a field, it’s overwhelmingly likely that bee came from a beekeeper’s yard. Even bees that swarm from a “kept” hive and end up making their home in a tree or log in nature don’t tend to live long. Without beekeepers, we wouldn’t have bees pollinating our vegetable, flowers, fruit trees at all.
I was really drawn to the community sense of your business, in that you are willing to share your knowledge to help others become beekeepers and learn your trade. What is the most important thing about crafting honey that you have learned since you and Shelly have started to keep bees?
Shelley: The beekeeping community is an important one, and we make sure to reach out to other bee keepers as well as to continue to rely on professionals like the amazing Ontario Beekeeping Association’s Tech Transfer Team here in Guelph, to acess information and resources that help keep our honey bees healthy. Ontario, and Guelph in particular has a dedicated group of professionals and academics who have dedicated their lives to keep bees happy and healthy, so we’re extremely fortunate to be able to access that.
Mark: I got involved in beekeeping because of that exact sense of community you mentioned. I had a couple of friends who were extremely generous with their time, especially when we first started out and were terrified of making any wrong move with our hives. They’d come by, help with inspections, reassure us that we were on the right track — they were just so helpful beyond the call of duty, and it’s the example they set for us that we try and follow. As others around us take an interest in having hives or learning more about how to help honeybees, we’ve tried to be the folks who will come by and lend a hand, check out the hives with them, help them extract honey at the end of season — all the stuff we benefited from when we first started out. I think that’s what makes our situation so special — it’s slow, small scale, and community oriented. Some friends have been inspired to have hives of their own, and others go out of their way to buy our honey as a way of supporting our efforts.
There’s been a lot of talk about the dwindling bee population in Canada. This past winter has also been one of the coldest in over 40 years, and one of the longest in some time. How does such a harsh winter like this affect the bees, in particular, the bees in your area? How do you expect this year’s harvest to go, given that everything, from the flowers to the hibernating animals, are moving/waking at a later time this year?
Mark: We’ve been hit really hard by this winter, and suffered huge losses. We had scaled back on the number of hives we had last summer, bringing the number down to 5 healthy, active hives by the end of last fall, but it looks like all but one has died over winter, and it’s possible that all 5 will have died. This isn’t related to Colony Collapse or disease, this is from the bees using up all their honey stores before spring arrives. I expect beekeepers throughout Ontario will suffer huge losses, if our experience is anything to go by. As beekeepers, you send your hives into the winter well fed and prepared for a standard winter season, but even today as I write this on April 3, it’s –2 outside, with snow flurries expected. You can only hope the bees are ok, but can’t open a hive to see without exposing them to the elements and they won’t leave the hive to feed on any sugar solutions left out for them. Each cold day pushes into the next one, delaying the start of spring weather, and so the bees quickly eat through whatever remaining honey supply they have. The freezing temperatures mean they can get out to find more food, and then it’s too late. We’ll have to purchase new queens and bees to get our hives repopulated, but who knows what this upcoming year will be like?
In addition to honey, what other bee-related products do you make? Also, does the consistency of the wax change relative to the consistency of the honey?
Shelley: Mark has made some awesome tattoo balm and this year we are getting into lip balm, I’m an addict, so I better start making my own. Every coat pocket I own has a least one tube!
Mark: We’ve collected a tonne of pure beeswax over the last number of years and I’ve had friends buy blocks of it to use in art projects, and as Shelley mentioned I’ve developed our own line of tattoo aftercare balm that’s been very popular in town. On a personal level, I use our honey when making mustards, and have been toying with the idea of making a variety of honey mustards to sell as well, but the honey is what most folks know us for, which is fine by me!
Backyard Bee Works is located in St. Patrick’s Ward, in Guelph, Ontario. For more information about buying their honey or honey-related beeswax products, visit their website at www.backyardbeeworks.com .