Tag Archives: Mimi Jones-Taylor

CHFA East 2014

Article by Mimi Jones-Taylor, photos by Mimi and Gayle Hurmuses. Featured image is of Véronique Perez, the creator of Limonana.

Canadian Health Food Association East – September 14, 2014 This past Sunday, September 14, 2014, Gayle and I attended the CHFA.ca convention. Like all trade shows, there were the large producers who had the biggest booths and displays to show off their latest products. Most of these are brands you’ve probably heard of: SISU, Kentucky Popcorn, Kettle brand chips, Jamieson…but given that the whole movement is based on local producers, I wanted to concentrate my roundup on those smaller farmers and producers who you might not have heard of that are making quality food and health products while remembering what “having a conscience” really means, as opposed to just some gimmicky words on a label.

Coffee We tried a lot of coffee. We went early on a Sunday morning! Being a writer, a good quality cup of coffee is manna from heaven at those times when inspiration strikes the mind but the body starts to slump over. Or you’re trying to function in a non-writing environment.

Ethical Bean
Ethical Bean ROCKET FUEL!

So when we got to ethical bean, the first coffee I tried was their Rocket Fuel. It is a dark roast, but it has more of a kick than your usual dark roast. Dark roasts by design have less caffeine than their lighter roast counterparts. But this one gets you up and at em and ready to go. Added bonus: their booth had your choice of maple sugar, organic cane sugar, or blue agave sweeteners. I had the blue agave. I am seriously considering using this in my daily coffees from now on.

CHFA East 23 Degrees Coffee
CHFA East 23 Degrees Coffee

The next coffee we tried was from local Roastery 23 degrees. They are extremely local – right across from Downsview Park in Toronto. If you are going to a concert up there, they have the best pick-me-up which is better for you than Red Bull ever would be – their Suckerpunch medium roast coffee. I had it with almond milk (switching it up from cream – when at an organic show…) and it did not detract from the lovely citrus and floral notes at the end. What I liked about this coffee is that the floral notes didn’t turn bitter, not even after I had finished my cup and moved on. Roastery 23 roasts their green beans right in Toronto, so there’s no flavour loss from shipping.

Doi Chaang - Beyond Fair Trade
Doi Chaang – Beyond Fair Trade

The third coffee that I tried was DOI Chaang Coffee. They are local to Vancouver, and not only are they fair-trade, but the Doi Chaang coffee farmers own 50% of the Vancouver company, and get 100% of the profits from all Canadian sales.

The mild roast coffee is excellent too! This one I had black, and got the full effect of the citrus notes.

DOI Chaang is available at Longo’s, Pusateris, and other fine supermarkets.

Snacks The snack industry is ridiculously massive. As you can probably guess, it’s also where you can find the worst items that pass for food in the universe. Snacks are ruining our physical makeup – diabetes, obesity, hypertension – but we can’t put down the crap. Organic food producers know this. And some of them want to help us to make better choices. Now we passed a lot of these combination snacks – throw everything into the kitchen sink, hope it sticks together and give it a crunch. It might taste okay, but if you include superfoods and buzzwords, people will buy it. Maybe. But people are creatures of habit. They know what they like and like what they know.

Deep River Chips
Deep River Chips

People know chips. They like chips. They understand chips. Chips, on the whole, should be pretty simple. Potatoes, oil, salt. That’s what the folks at Deep River think, too. They are a US company, however, what makes them stand out is that every flavour is sponsored by a charity, so the proceeds from each flavour go back to the charity sponsoring it through their “Give a chip!” program. Simple, smart, and they were great-tasting.


Simply 7 Quinoa Chips
Simply 7 Quinoa Chips

Simply 7 is another company doing chips, also from the US. Their chips are much like Pringles – the flour of the grain is moulded into a chip shape, coated with flavouring as necessary, baked, and then flash-fried. It sounds like a lot of processing, but they have Quinoa chips which have the highest protein content of any chip-based snack in Canada. They tasted like bad-for-you snacks as well, which is always an added bonus if you’re trying to get the younger people in your house to have better-for-them snacks. Kids won’t grab anything with the word “chia” on it, unless it’s a weird-shaped head with green stuff sprouting from it.

Crosswind Farms Goat Cheese
Crosswind Farms Goat Cheese

Cheese. How do people live without cheese? I know there are a bunch of lactose-intolerant and raw food vegans out there who might have been offended by this question. It’s okay. I’m allergic to capsicum, and people continually ask me how can I live without roasted red peppers? (Quite fine, actually.) Cheese is the food that defines the “think local” movement. Most of us live within a 100 km, never mind 100 mile, radius of a dairy farm of some kind. A good cheese will be representative of its local terroir: the flavour of the grass that the animal eats, the contentedness of the animals, the nursery where the cheese is ripened…all of this comes out in the flavour.

Plus, with local product purchased on the farm’s property, a case can be made for the production of raw milk cheeses without fear of the pasteurization police. I tried Crosswind Farms’ Triple Crème Cretain cheese – they are the only producers in Canada making a Triple Crème raw milk goat cheese – and I melted on the spot. We get little bites of manna from heaven on this planet every once in a while. This was definitely one of them. They also do the regular goat feta cheese and spreadable goat cheese, but this…it’s worth the drive to Keene, near Peterborough.

Best Baa Farm - Sheep Milk & Cheese
Best Baa Farm – Sheep Milk & Cheese

I also tried Best Baa Farm sheep Eweda Cru – a raw sheep milk gouda-style cheese. It’s not for the faint of heart. It packs a punch the way a true Dutch Gouda would. The regular Eweda almost pales in comparison, but if you have friends who aren’t fans of that which makes cheese the reason to live, it’s still a lovely cheese. Best Baa Dairy, which is the location to buy the cheese, as well as sheep milk yogurt, quark, and actual sheep milk itself, is located in Fergus, near Guelph. Their cheese is also available at the Loblaws Maple Leaf Gardens store.

Rumble Supershake
Rumble Supershake

Low-Glycemic Food Substitutes Here’s the thing – diabetics are continually told they have to keep eating small meals throughout the day so their blood sugar doesn’t spike and fall like a roller coaster. And sometimes, you can’t. It’s too much, especially if you’re a senior citizen. Or if you’re an athlete and you want to keep your blood sugar at a steady level, and maintain your glycemic index. What this means is you need to keep your body on an even keel – spiking your insulin levels in the morning with coffees full of sugar and muffins is not the best way to keep things even. But yes, I tried some of the substitutes and, for those of you who have been prescribed Boost or Ensure as a meal replacement because you’re not getting the proper nutrients,

Rumble Supershake makes an excellent alternative. If you are diabetic and you take the commercial brands, what you may not realise is that they are chock full of actual sugar. They have to give you energy somehow. But Rumble’s founder has cystic fibrosis and is diabetic. He wanted something that he could take that wouldn’t make his health suffer, and his insulin go completely out of whack, and also tasted good enough to drink instead of feeling like you had to choke it down.

SoLo Gi Energy Bars
SoLo Gi Energy Bars

For those of you who are athletes, or diabetics or gluten-free glycemic index-conscious consumers, you’ve probably been confronted with the power bar situation.All power bars taste like crap. But people force themselves into believing that they taste great because they have the word “chocolate” on them and/or are dipped in some type of waxy, “organic” chocolate coating to hide their horrifying flavour. Solo bars decided they wanted to change all that. The founders of SOLO GI Nutrition created the bar in association with the University of Alberta, trying to achieve the perfect balance with Glycemic Index regulation, nutrition, and taste. This was not an easy feat – it took them years to develop the perfect balance. It is the only energy bar to be certified by the Canadian Celiac Foundation and GI Labs.

What really impressed me was the taste. The Dark Chocolate Almond tasted like a chocolate bar and NOT like an energy bar. This makes them wonderful and edible alternatives to granola bars or chocolate bars for kids snacks, pregnant women, and especially diabetics and athletes looking to keep their glycemic indexes steady.

BareJuiceSpecialty Foods/Novelties There are two other products that I want to mention. Drink mixes don’t have to be crap. They don’t have to taste like powder in a bottle. They can be made with real juice. In fact, that reduces their calorie count. BARE organic mixers are just such mixes. On display they only had the margarita mix, and it tasted like absolute pure, authentic margaritas. Not that day-glow stuff in a bottle you find at the grocery. All pure citrus juices. And with reduced calories because of the real juice, you can add alcohol guilt-free and enjoy!

Finally, for the people who are in a hurry and just want to have the semblance that they made a meal when they didn’t really lift a finger – premade dinners. Not just frozen dinners, but something that gives the dinner you made an extra touch, or if you just need a sauce for your meal. I tried Soul to Bowl’s Vegan Mac’n’Cheeseless Sauce made with carrot juice. Having just eaten half a Gouda, I didn’t expect much. But I was blown away. I could not tell that this was a dairy-free sauce. Founder Kailey Gilchrist managed to create a vegan sauce that is a little stuttery lumpy like an authentic béchamel, and that behaves like a béchamel, to be used over macaroni and baked, or poured over broccoli and served. They also have a Vegan Alfredo sauce. And for me, the sauce snob, to be blown away by the vegan substitute has me wondering what other joys of veganism I’ve missed. So that was my experience at the CHFA this year. Organic food doesn’t have to be snooty or intimidating. It’s just the best ingredients put into the best dishes and served. Our bodies know the difference between something with incredible taste and something that is just thrown at us because we need to put something down our necks to survive. There’s no reason why it can’t be both, and why we can’t sustain the Healthy Food initiatives…

Note from Gayle…planning to add some further comments soon as time permits about all the other wonderful foods I tried there. Meanwhile, please check our twitter feed for images of great food and wonderful vendors!

Pectin-free Strawberry Jam

IMG_20140625_205329Recipe and photos by Mimi Jones Taylor

I wasn’t sure if we were going to get a strawberry harvest in Ontario before July this year. Our winter was frigid, then in April, just as things appeared to be warming up, they froze over. I know that if the farmers have seedlings in the ground before Victoria Day weekend, they have to do their best to keep the ground warm and moist for the little guys, but with our last frost being on that weekend, the farmers certainly had their work cut out for them.

You see, I have a thing for strawberry jam. And when I say I have a “thing”, that doesn’t mean I eat every jar I lay my hands on. In fact, I hardly eat strawberry jam at all. But I do love to make it.

Before I moved to the Green Belt, though, I never contemplated making jam. My mother tried her hand at it when I was a child, and all I remember seeing were pots of bubbling and boiling liquids here and there and gooey Certo spilling all over the stove and having tons of filled jars in our cellar.

My late husband the chef made wine jams for sen5es – in their early days when they were a gourmet food store that served light fare. He had always prided himself on the fact that his jams were made with only the naturally-occurring pectin in the fruits themselves, and no additional pectin was used – no small feat when you add alcohol to the cooking fruit, since alcohol can inhibit the jam from gelling.

But my love affair with making strawberry jam started the year my son was in Junior Kindergarten. He is “on The Spectrum”, meaning he has autism. He is a high-functioning child with a condition formerly known as Aspergers. As a result, when he started school, not only did he have a Kindergarten teacher, but he had an Educational Assistant, along with the Special Education Resources Teacher, and the student teachers all helping him to transition from the happy, carefree life at home to the confined life inside a classroom. At the end of the year, when it came time to figure out what to give his teacher for a thank you gift, I was faced with having to give at least four gifts. I didn’t know what to do, since this was just before the dollar stores started selling better-quality mugs, and besides, teachers have a billion mugs anyway. All of his teachers had gone above and beyond the call of duty with him, and I wanted to thank them in a special way. I could have just baked cookies, but I had no idea who had what kind of allergies, and my kitchen facilities are in no way, shape, or form nut-free.

While I was trying to figure out a suitable gift, one evening I stopped in at Whittamore’s Farm on the Markham/Toronto border to pick up a quart of strawberries so I could make some strawberry ice cream. Whittamore’s had stunning flats of berries, along with pretty jars on the shelves near the strawberries. Then it clicked. I should make strawberry jam. Why not? It would be something different, homemade to show that I cared, and, more importantly, it wouldn’t be another mug.

I bought a flat and some jars and brought it all home. I researched the best way to make jams without using additional pectin. And off I went. Turns out I actually learned something from observing all the people around me make preserved fruit. I ended up with ten x 250 mL jars of jam that first year. And all of the teachers came back to me in September to let me know how much they had enjoyed the “fruit” of my labours (yes I just made that joke).

We have been very lucky with the school system for my son. He has managed to have the same EA and SERT since JK, something that is practically unheard of in the public education system in Southern Ontario. So every year, these wonderful teachers, and the new teachers and EAs who have come into my son’s life, all end up with jars of homemade strawberry jam. I was told by his SERT that she hides the jam in a special place in the fridge with a huge note on it. “This is MOM’s jam. Do not touch on pain of death!” This is coming from one of the kindest, most patient people I have ever encountered on this planet!

But getting back to my fears about this year – with frost occurring well into May, I feared that there would be no fresh strawberries in time for the end of the school year, and I would be forced into purchasing eight – yes he had eight teachers involved in his life this year, including the principal – cheesy dollar-store mugs and filling them with bulk store candy. But the weekend before school closed, I saw, much to my delight, flats of Whittamore’s strawberries ready for preserving. I took pictures of my process, and as you can see, the fruit this year held a lot of water, even more than in previous years. I did have my son help me crush the fruit so he could take part of the credit of making the actual jam. All I had to do was whip up some labels, and voila – instant (and when I say instant, I mean made in 90min) presents to show these hard workers – who do what they do more for love than the pittance of cash we pay them – a small token of my appreciation of everything they do every day for my son.

Here’s my simple recipe. Hopefully you will have people waiting with bated breath for your jam year after year as I have with mine. Just remember to share!

Backyard Bee Works: The Small and Mighty

Article and photography by Mimi Jones-Taylor.

Backyard Bee Works hive. Photo courtesy Mark & Shelley McAlpine

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.

Backyard Bee Works 1kg honey jars. Yum! Photo courtesy Mark & Shelley McAlpine

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.

Mark McAlpine with one of the backyard hives.
Mark McAlpine with one of the backyard hives.

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.

Beekeeper Shelley McAlpine and one of the girls.
Beekeeper Shelley McAlpine and one of the girls.

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.

Photo by Mark & Shelley McAlpine
Photo by Mark & Shelley McAlpine

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.

Photo courtesy Mark & Shelley McAlpine
Photo courtesy Mark & Shelley McAlpine

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 .