I flip the hood over my head; blink twice as my vision adjusts to the mesh hanging in front of my face. I ask for a final inspection of my suit and the beekeeper rips the Velcro away for readjustment before patting it firmly over the zippers at my neck.
“Looks good,” she says. “Are you ready?”
I am SO ready.
“Let’s do this,” I say. And I pick my way through the dandelions toward a pair of bee boxes bright against the sky.
I’ve arrived at Chinook Honey Company – just a stone’s throw from Okotoks’ Big Rock erratic – to join seven other participants in the farm’s Backstage with the Bees experience. It’s my own personal tribute to 2021’s Year of the Beekeeper – and a good excuse to indulge my fondness for honey.
Seems we humans have had a predilection for honey since the first Homo Sapiens braved the barbs of bees to plunge their hands into a cavity and plunder its sticky treasure. That’s the image portrayed in an 8000-year-old cave painting in Spain’s La Cuevas de la Arana – the oldest archaeological evidence of humans gathering honey. Similar rock paintings occur in India, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Once discovered, we couldn’t get enough. Both the Greeks and the Romans used honey widely as a cooking liquid. The 10th century Chinese invented the first honey-cake. Mi-king honey bread was said to be standard fare in the saddlebags of Genghis Khan’s horsemen – a sort of early energy bar to fuel their exploits.
But honey bees are not native to North America, so our history with them here is relatively short. European settlers brought hives of Apis mellifera
to the continent in the 1600s, keen as much for the slow, smokeless burn of beeswax candles to light their homes as they were for sweetener at the table. Honey bees continue to be predominantly a farmed livestock species in Canada, as our cold winter nights usually prove too difficult for them to survive in the wild.
For the founders of Chinook Honey Company, beekeeping began as a happy experiment. Art and Cherie Andrews were both busy airline professionals when they got a pair of hives to pollinate their garden some 25 years ago. Two hives turned into ten; ten became fifty, and in 2004 they launched a retail outlet to sell their surplus honey. Since 2007, the apiary business has been the couple’s full-time occupation, and the tiny outlet has grown to encompass a bee education centre, a meadery, and a country store filled with everything bee-related, from honey and beeswax items to ice cream and health and skincare products. Some 20,000 visitors arrive annually at the farm through tours, school groups, and special events like “Backstage with the Bees”.
For our visit to the hives today, we’ve been assigned a task: to step into the shoes of a beekeeper and check for signs of hive health. While we’re distinctly lacking in prior experience, we’ve been primed by a half-hour orientation with beekeeper, Jocelyn Walker, a University of Alberta-trained entomologist and former beetle fan until the sophisticated social behaviour of the bees won her over to the black and gold.
Her in-depth insights have us excited for the task, but we’re hesitant at first. We lift the hive lid gingerly; squeeze the smoker bellows slowly to keep the bees calm. Soon awe trumps trepidation as we pry out the frames one-by-one and watch thousands of worker bees go about their tasks: festooning wax into honeycomb; feeding pollen to larvae; and transforming nectar into honey stores meant to feed the tribe. We find a few hairy male drones lolling about, awaiting that brief moment of reproductive destiny that precedes their violent death. And we thrill to the discovery of each hive’s queen, her bee attendants clearing a passage for her long, slender body, as she strives to meet her daily laying quota of 2000 eggs.
An hour passes quickly at the hive before we take our seats again in the afternoon sun. Here, Art introduces us to mead: a tradition of fermenting honey with water and yeast into an alcoholic beverage that long preceded wine- and beer-making. Initiated by the Chinese in 7000 BC, the practice was taken up in India, Africa, and Europe, and remained a popular tipple until the 18th century. As interest in craft beverages has grown in recent decades, mead, too has seen a resurgence. Still, it took significant government lobbying by the Andrews before their Chinook Arch Meadery became the first licensed to sell mead in Alberta in 2007.
They now produce 20 varieties, and Art walks us through the tasting of three of them: King Arthur’s Dry, with a crisp finish destined to pair well with poultry; the Black & Blue, whose marriage of black currants with blueberries cries out for a sangria application; and the fortified Raspberry Redemption, lingering with sweet red fruit.
As we sample our meads and nibble at individual charcuterie platters, Jocelyn coaches us through the crafting of our own beeswax lip balms. She also delves into a bee conundrum: while honey bees pollinate about 1/3 of the food we eat – and are critical to Canada’s commercial production of blueberries, apples, and seed canola – our country is also home to 800+ species of native bees. These wild bees pollinate crops, too – and 70% of other plants in our eco-systems. But most native species are solitary bees, which puts them at a numbers deficit in the competition for food resources with their colony-building cousins. “It’s tricky. A lot of people want to have hives to save the bees,” says Jocelyn, “But that’s not necessarily how to do it.”
While honey bees and many native bees have shown alarming declines in recent years, research and changing management practices have helped honey bees rally. The fate of wild bees remains uncertain; diversity of habitat seems to be key. Gardens can help, says Jocelyn. “Plant things that bloom throughout the year… so there’s always a food source for [the bees].”
And my own conclusion as I head into the shop to stock up on honey and mead? Much as I love those honey bees, I think I’ll leave them to the canola fields and offer my garden’s resources to the solitary and wild.