Last year, amid a media storm about bee-killing chemicals, my two younger brothers, George and James, decided to quit just talking about bees and actually get some. George has a friend of a friend who'd been keeping bees for 40 years, and both of my brothers are as interested in environmental stewardship as they are in delicious honey. With an acre of flower-filled green space behind the house but a neophyte's knowledge of apiculture, it was decided: The backyard was getting bees.
As bee populations drop and awareness rises, beekeeping—as a hobby or a small business—is steadily growing across Canada. "There's so much interest in urban homesteading, self-sufficiency and local food, as well as a movement to relax bee bylaws," says Tara Zachariah, cochair of the Toronto Beekeepers Co-operative. Last year, the Canadian Honey Council reported more than 8,500 Canadian beekeepers operated a record high of 720,000 colonies—up from 637,920 in 2011. On average, 20 percent of Canadian beekeepers manage 80 percent of hives—meaning 80 percent of beekeepers are small-scale hobbyists, just like us. Hives and bee hotels are popping up atop urban hotels, in public parks and, if you're brave enough (and have the space), in your very own backyard.
How brave do you need to be? Turns out, not very. "The biggest misconception about beekeeping is this sense of danger," says James. Yes, both brothers have been stung a few times, but even though hundreds of thousands of bees live in their four hives, stings are rare. To keep it that way, a bee suit—either head-to-toe or waist-up—from a bee supply store is one of the startup tools that will make your life a wee bit easier. You'll also need prefab or homemade "supers" (the boxes that make the hive), plastic or wax foundations (for bees to build honeycomb on), a smoker (which calms the bees and encourages them to stay inside the hive) and, of course, the bees themselves. Startup costs usually total less than $1,000, depending on how many hives you build.
"We decided four hives was not too big and not too small to start," says George. They found the right spot—sheltered from the wind with lots of light, and, legally, at least 30 metres from property lines and 10 metres from a highway—and ordered condensed bee colonies, called nucs, for delivery. "You don't need a permit, but you do need to register your hives," says Julie White, a board member with the Ontario Beekeepers' Association (OBA) and a proud mom to 25 hives.
Once a busy CEO, White retired five years ago to pursue a completely different lifestyle. "I wanted to do something in agriculture and to actually make something," she says. Before committing to her Prince Edward County hives, White joined the OBA, enrolled in courses at the University of Guelph and studied beneath a University of Delaware professor for a year.
Newbie beekeepers would do well to take a course in beekeeping, but guidance from an experienced beekeeper has been most valuable for my brothers. Their mentor Milovan Milicevic still visits to inspect and advise as needed. "It's a master-apprentice relationship," says James, "like Star Wars."
Once the hard work is over and the bees are in place, says James, "we try to let them do their thing and to intervene as little as possible." To ensure the insects are healthy, meaning disease- and parasite-free, and the queen is well and thriving, hives should be checked monthly. But for most beekeepers, just observing your bees as they go about their business becomes an irresistible habit. "I'm there every day," admits White. The same is true for my brothers. "James is out there all the time, just to get out of real work," jokes George.
Beekeeping is real work, but practitioners also find it rewarding and even relaxing. "The experience of going into a bee yard—the sound, the smell, the energy—is so profoundly moving and energizing," says White. You must move slowly and deliberately, says George, so you don't startle the insects. An agitated hive will buzz at a higher frequency and will sound different—and that goes both ways. "If you're anxious, the bees know it," says Zachariah. "They pick up on your moods." As such, beekeepers learn—by necessity, as to not get stung—to stay alert, calm and present, says White. No wonder beekeeping, like gardening, is often compared to meditation.
"You're having a positive effect on the bees, and they're having a positive effect on you," says James. But there's much more to it than that. After my family's hives went in, amazing things started happening around our house: Besides reaping about 23 kilograms of sweet organic honey, our raspberry harvest doubled, our crab apples became edible and pears began to grow on the big tree next door. "The neighbours have lived there for 20 years, and they never knew they had a pear tree," says James. When they asked what's happening and how, the answer was easy: We've got bees now.