Elk River Apiaries
If you love honey, love your dandelions.
The bees certainly do - any wildflower and weed, really. While at Elk River Apiaries with apiarist Deborah Davidson last summer I learn that the weeds we so often despise of are the ones little bees need.
Because it is those little magical bees that turn those weeds into sweet, delicious honey.
Deb has been an apiarist for 15 years. I meet her on her farm on Dicken Road on a hot summer day at the end of July. Despite the heat she wears a long-sleeved flannel shirt; working with bees means covering up.
Her dogs hide in the shade of the truck as Deb dresses me in a beekeeping suit - a white pair of overalls, white hat and netting. Though certainly stifling, I'm happy for the protection when we walk through the electric fence and she opens up the first hive.
Honey bees buzz everywhere, their sound nearly deafening. They fly in front of my face and I fight the urge to run. Deb is calm, she doesn't have that frantic fear of bees.
She pumps smoke from burning pine needles around the hive sporadically with a little hand-pumped smoke machine.
"We smoke the bees, they think it is a forest fire," Deb explains. "Because they are so stressed at protecting their hive they are less likely to sting us."
Deb tells me she first worked as a bee keeper 15 years ago, a summer job after university. Today her and her partner Doug manage nearly 100 hives in and around the Elk Valley.
As we move through the hives sand check each comb for honey, I learn that there are roughly 50,000 bees per hive, and each hive produces 50 pounds of honey (depending on the weather and season, of course).
The spring of 2016's unsuspected early sun and heat, followed by a rapid cooling make it more difficult for the bees to collect nectar for honey, try as they might.
Deb makes the hive frames and then colonies of bees make the honeycomb out of wax. They collect nectar from wildflowers (knapweed is a favourite around here), and deliver it to the hive. When the combs are enclosed in a waxy top the beekeeper knows the honey is ready.
She takes some honey and leaves some for the bees. They will survive six months during the winter with the honey they have made.
"Try this," Deb says, handing me a dollop of fresh honey from a metal spatula. The honey drips from the frame where she has just punctured it. I slip the honey beneath my netting and taste the sweet, sweet nectar! A light sweetness, almost fragrant.
"It takes six bees their lifetime to produce one teaspoon of honey," she says. That is 1/6 of a teaspoon per bee. How hard the bees must work to make a living. I begin to understand their plight; it is a fragile system.
After expressing concern for a little bee that has made her way into my neckline, Deb casually grabs the bee and sets her free. We then search for the queen bee of one hive but can't find her - it's likely she is hidden deep within.
"I feel honoured to be a part of their world," says Deb. "To spend time with them and witness the process."
Indeed, it is hard not to feel honoured amongst the busy bees on a hot summer day beneath Proctor and Hosmer mountains.
We finish with the hives and close up the electric fence (8,000 volts), meant to protect the colonies from hungry bears in search of supper.
When I ask Deb what she loves the most about beekeeping she simply says, "The magic."
On my way home I can't stop thinking about how true it is - the magic of making honey, the resilience of the bee, the importance of a dandelion.
(Italicized) How to help the bees this spring/summer: 1. Plant bee-friendly flowers in your garden and yard. 2. Bees are thirsty! Put out a small basin of freshwater for them to drink. 3. Don't use pesticides and chemicals to treat your lawn. 4. Weeds are a good thing. 5. Buy local, raw honey. Yum!