by Sarah Tyrrell
I know this because, at some point over the past few years, the phrase ‘become a beekeeper’ somehow crept onto my ever-evolving list of Very Important Life Goals (The List, for short).
Sure, some wacky notions have come and gone from The List, and some still linger there longingly, hoping one day I really will ‘build a chicken coop,’ and ‘go sea-kayaking in Alaska’ (‘learn to kayak’ should probably have come first, I guess), but ‘become a beekeeper’ seemed different somehow. The phrase looked confidently back at me from its place on The List, knowing, it seemed, that its time would soon come to be triumphantly crossed off.
And then one day, I caught wind of a beekeeper, une apiariste in French, who was looking for an apprentice. Her name was Monique Leger, I was told, and she, along with friends Bob and Lynne, kept three hives on the grounds at the Carp Ridge EcoWellness Centre.
What followed this discovery was a whirlwind of emails and excitement, ultimately leading to me driving to Carp Ridge one sunny Saturday, tracking down the people in bee suits, and then breathlessly blurting (probably with the enthusiasm of a kid who’s just discovered candy), “Hi! Are you Monique? Bob? Lynne? The beekeepers? Are you looking for an apprentice? Can I be your apprentice?” And so it began!
On many sunny weekend mornings to follow, to my total delight, my apprenticeship unfolded. I learned how to put on a bee veil, the protective mesh face mask that keeps potentially ornery bees from stinging your face. I learned how to use a hive tool, a kind of tiny crowbar used to pry open the hives after the bees seal them shut with propylis, a natural glue-like substance they create and then spit out like mortar.
I learned to approach a hive from behind or from the side, so as not to alarm the bees whose job it is to guard the hive entrance. And I learned the all-important reason why beekeepers wear white: because otherwise, the bees might think you’re a bear, and well, that’s just not good.
Under Monique’s forever cool, calm and collected guidance, I learned to remove a frame from the hive without wearing gloves! It was the coolest sensation, really, because I could feel the frame subtly vibrating from the beating of the bees’ wings. (You can’t feel that through gloves!)
Monique showed me that male bees, or drones, don’t have stingers, and that I could easily pick them up (very gently) by their wings and hold them in my bare hands — talk about a cool party trick! I learned how to look for the queen bee and to identify her by her size — far larger than all the other bees.
Lynne explained to me the mystical workings of the waggle dance, a complex dance bees perform, which looks like a series of figure eights, and is the primary way scout bees returning to the hive inform their hivemates about the size of pollen sources they find, and the distance to them.
I am proud to report that I even got my first sting this past summer, and without any adverse reaction, which is always a perk!
Possibly my favourite lesson of all, though, was learning to use the smoker. This magical little device looks kind of like an old-fashioned oil can that you fill with wood chips or dead grass, which you then light on fire. (Cool, right?! I know. It gets better!) Then you squeeze a little accordion-like part of it, smoke billows out of its spout, and you sort of puff this smoke all over and in and around the hives.
Contrary to what I had thought, the smoke doesn’t ‘make the bees sleepy’, but rather, it makes them think there’s a forest fire nearby. Their instincts kick in, and they prepare for an emergency relocation by gorging themselves on the honey stored in the hive, instead of stinging the beekeepers who are now poking around in their business. Brilliant!
I should note that smoking doesn’t hurt bees, and once the smoke subsides a bit (hopefully by the time the beekeepers are done investigating), the bees resume their normal activities. Still, it’s pretty neat to see them react so quickly and methodically to the smoke — definitely impressive compared to most human fire drills I’ve seen!
At harvest time, Monique, Bob and Lynne invited me and the other apprentices over for a honey-extracting party. Bob taught me to use the uncapping tool, or ‘hot knife,’ to remove the wax layer from the frames full of honey, then he fired up the centrifuge to extract all that golden goodness from the honeycomb.
In the fall, as the flowers began to fade and pollen sources became fewer, the bees began to slow down, the honey harvest was completed, and the hives prepared themselves for winter.
Now the hives are more or less quiet, as the bees settle in for a long season of munching on their honey store and waiting for spring!
Without a doubt, my beekeeping apprenticeship has been a major highlight of my yea r– I’ve met some wonderful people, eaten a ton of fresh, delicious honey, and felt a special sense of accomplishment by crossing another life dream off my bucket list.
As winter prepares to blanket home and hive with snow, I wonder what will be next to get crossed off The List. Maybe ‘take up cross-country skiing’? ‘Build an actual igloo’?
Who knows. . .
(In addition to beekeeping, Sarah works as an Admin at Carp Ridge EcoWellness Centre. You can reach her at email@example.com. You can also find more ‘Carp Ridge Bee Diaries’ in our Article Archive)