Bee Smart: The Importance of Proper Beekeeping

Tierney Watkinson | News Director

Our province’s agriculture is highly dependent on the health of bee populations and according to the BC Ministry of Agriculture, “more than 2,300 beekeepers currently operate approximately 47,000 colonies as a hobby or as a full or part-time business venture.”

Among these provincial beekeepers is Alicja Muir, president of the UNBeeC Apiary Club on campus.

Although the club was founded almost nine years ago, it dissolved around the same time that its original members graduated. Muir resurrected the club last year. The club still works with prominent Prince George beekeeper Gerry Bomford, who has been a beekeeper for decades. Bomford accompanies the club whenever they visit the six hives on campus. Muir says that the honey produced from these hives is given to the club by Bomford, who owns the bees as well as the hives. The honey is then sold at the Farmers Market.   

Even if you have a fear of bees, Muir encourages people to join the Apiary Club. “If you are afraid of bees, actually coming to the meetings is a really, really good idea,” says Muir. “We have the full bodysuits,” she reassures prospective members. “You are sealed in…It is like a hazmat suit.” Caring for the bees while fully protected helps significantly to overcome the fears of, say, being stung. She explains that the club’s mentor Bomford does not even wear gloves or a bodysuit, he is so used to his work. “I saw him stung in the eyelid once,” Muir laughs, “and he looks in his car mirror, scrapes the stinger out of his eye, and just says ‘Ok! Get back to work!’”

The club hosts hives of Apis mellifera, also known as the western honey bee, or the European honey bee. There are nine species of honeybees with 44 subspecies, Muir explains; the ones we have here in northern BC are the only ones that aren’t tropical or sub Saharan, so they can survive our winters.

When asked if she believes that domestic bee colonies have a positive impact on wild colonies, Muir says: “Definitely.” An interest in domesticated honey bees, she explains, spurs interest and thought pertaining to wild bees and other insects that people see naturally in our area. “The bees that are native to North America aren’t honeybees.” In Prince George, the two main types of bees are carpenter bees and bumble bees; since they don’t produce delicious honey, they are unfortunately more likely to be overlooked.

If you don’t feel like beekeeping is for you or perhaps don’t have the space for hives, planting a bee-friendly garden is another way to encourage wild bee populations in your area. Muir uses the botanical garden on campus as a great example of such a garden, because “it has all of the native species of plants, which helps the native species of bees.” Muir clarifies that flowering plants that are native to the area are the ideal option for a healthy local bee population; native grasses and plants that do not flower do not attract or need the bees. Be sure to plant a variety of flowers because carpenter bees, for instance, will pollinate your smaller flowers while bumble bees will tend towards the larger ones. “There are lots of different species around and they all need different food.”

Beekeeping as an organization is strong in Prince George. The BC Honey Producers’ Association (BCHPA), meet the second Monday of every month at CNC. Approximately 12 beekeepers attend these meetings regularly, according to Muir, not counting the newcomers to the practice. Beekeeping is becoming more recognized as an important practice. Local businesses such as Betulla Burning, Muir adds, are even becoming involved and plan to install hives on their roofs. Costco even had beekeeper start-up kits available for sale last summer.

Despite the apparent ease of beginning your own bee colony, Muir cautions those interested that this is not something you can just dive into. “Don’t just go buy bees and think that you will be able to do it without any knowledge.” Beekeeping is complicated; people even go to school for it and Google will not necessarily have all of the answers. It is easy to become excited and then overwhelmed, Muir warns, and she encourages those interested in apiculture to take some time to do the research, receive training, and attend meetings. To be unaware of an important detail, such as the need to install feeders to hives during winter months, and have your entire colony die because of it, would be tragic. “They are living creatures.”

Winters here are long and cold, and proper knowledge of winterizing hives is especially paramount to bee survival. According to the 2017 CAPA (Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists) Bee Winter Loss Report, British Columbia beekeepers who experienced losses over the winter last year cited weather and starvation as the main causes of honeybee mortality in their domestic bee colonies. Beekeeping presents many challenges, including “pest management, climatic condition, bee nutrition, bee exposure to pesticides in hives and environment.” Regardless, CAPA notes that “the number of [bee] colonies in Canada has increased by 27.3% from 2007 until 2016,” as more people across the province become interested in apiculture and see the need for it.

The UNBeeC Apiary Club has no membership fees, and members are simply encouraged to come to the meetings when they can. Weekly meetings are held over the summer and through the end of October at 1pm Saturdays and Sundays alternatively. As soon as the first snow hits or Prince George experiences heavy frost, which should be sometime around late October, Muir says, the club will need extra volunteers to help winterize the hives. “It is a bigger production. We need to put all the feeder boxes on, we nail Styrofoam boards around each hive to insulate them.” Club meetings will continue until the hives are winterized. In March, when the weather warms and things start to flower, those winter protections will be removed and regular club meetings will start back up again.

If you would like to become involved in apiculture, or simply want to learn more about the bee hives on campus, the club’s Facebook page (UNBeeC Apiary Club) is the best method of contact. You can also email the club directly at UNBeeC@unbc.ca.