Living in honey central
A peek into the hives of Athabasca's beekeepers, where some of Canada’s most desireable honey is harvested
As a kid, Tyrel Nagtegaal wanted to be an entomologist – someone who studies insects – when he grew up.
Now 24, he and his fiancé Reyanne Yowney own 80 beehives outside of Athabasca, which produce some of the most desirable honey in Canada.
The honey produced in Athabasca County is highly valued because honey bees make it with clover pollen. The plants give honey a light-blonde colour and sweet, mild taste that is highly sought after.
As such, beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular in the county. Shane Barriault, who co-owns the Barriault Ranch near Rochester, called the area “honey-central.”
Nagtegaal decided to be a beekeeper after he graduated with a bachelor of science. When he told Yowney, she was surprised.
“It’s not really a job or career or business that anyone thinks to be,” he said.
Even so, Alberta has a strong reputation domestically and internationally for quality honey.
According the Alberta government, Alberta itself produces about 40 per cent of Canada’s honey, with the prairie provinces accounting for 80 per cent. Alberta farmers have the advantage of long daylight hours during the summer and access to desirable crops like clover, alfalfa and canola.
They face disadvantages in that the winters are cool – Nagtegaal and Yowney said they lost half of their beehives last year.
All beekeepers must register with the Alberta Bee Act. The Alberta Agriculture and Forestry page said there are about 10,500 beekeepers in Canada. Some are hobbyists, some mass producers and others urban beekeepers, who are allowed one hive per property.
Beekeeping is hard work – earlier in July, Nagtegaal lifted a total of 28,000 pounds while helping a friend move honey. He also said he has been stung thousands of times in the two years he’s done it.
He keeps two of his 80 hives by his home. The rest are in farmers’ fields, to give the bees space to collect pollen.
Beehives are made of several large boxes with honeycomb style inserts for honey and egg production. Every hive must have a queen, who lays eggs in the bottom box. Her worker bees create care for eggs and collect pollen. The base box is separated from boxes above by a queen excluder, a grate fine enough that worker bees can pass through, but a queen cannot. There, bees produce the honey that the beekeeper collects.
It is important that beekeepers keep providing their bees boxes to work in, or they will produce a new queen bee and divide the hive in two.
After they get the honey, the beekeeper uses machinery to extract it and the wax from the sheets of honey combs, and refines it.
Nagtegaal said his favourite part of beekeeping is the spring time, when he gets to interact with the bees by monitoring the queen’s egg production and the honey.
“You get to go into all the intricate details of the hive,” he said. “That big one, as soon as I open it up it’s just packed with honey, packed with everything. It’s almost like opening up a present.”
Yowney interjected – “But you get stung, so it’s not a very good present.”
Nagtegaal and Yowney purchased their bees from a friend at first.
Barriault and his wife Corissa said they ordered theirs from New Zealand, where Alberta Agriculture said about 95 per cent of Canada’s bees come from.
Canada closed its borders to American bees after they bees started spreading diseases and mites northward. Now, mites are in Canada and regularly destroy bee hives, although beekeepers can get insurance in case that happens.
Last year in British Columbia, the ZomBee Watch project found the Apocephalus borealis parasite, which buries into bees, causing them to wander aimlessly and lose control of their bodies before they die.
“I hope that never comes here,” Corissa said. “The bees are in enough trouble as it is in the world.”
In northern Alberta, summer ends quickly and begins later than the rest of the province, so beekeepers must include extra honey or syrup stores in the bees’ hives to hold them over before flowers start to surface.
Corissa said that to help the bees, people should stop killing dandelions – as one of the earliest blooming flowers, they are the bees’ first food sources in the spring.