Saskatchewan farmer also began raising bees as a way to reduce the amount of white sugar that her family consumed
Autumn in the country is a season that can stir emotions. Getting the crop in is a sure sign of progress, sending children off to school is a welcome task and taking up winter work blends together in a fall routine for many farmers and ranchers at this time of year.
Lisa Peters from Burnham east of Swift Current, Sask., knows this routine well. Helping her husband, Keith, with hauling bales in and sorting cattle for market, sending the last child off to college a few hundred kilometres away, and resuming her part-time teaching position at the local college are all part of her fall routine.
In addition to those duties, however, Peters must also put her bees to bed for the winter.
“I always like to have a project,” Peters said.
Inspired by her grandfather, who used to raise bees on his farm, and her interest in addressing reports of a declining bee population worldwide, she said she felt like “it was just the right thing to do.”
She also wanted to reduce the amount of white sugar the family was consuming.
“There is so much satisfaction to be gained from growing your own food and ensuring the quality of the product,” said Peters.
This year, Peters’ bees produced about 150 kilograms of honey. In addition to honey, she makes lip balm and body butter and hopes to one day make her own candles.
Her product is marketed only through word of mouth, but she is busy enough supplying family and friends. Rather than selling on the open market, Peters likes to trade her honey for other goods (home canning and garden produce). She also has a ready supply on hand to give as birthday or Christmas gifts.
First-time beekeepers may spend as much as $250 on a package containing a queen and about 10,000 bees.
Hive starter kits are sold for about $350 and additional large supers with frames cost about $150. Bee suits, a smoker, a bee brush, a pry tool and a couple of feeder pails are also essential tools for beekeepers. Beekeepers also need assorted other tools, such as an extractor and an uncapping plane or hot knife to extract the honey.
It costs about $1,500 for a beekeeper to get set up and ready to make honey; it’s cheaper if they buy used items.
But honey production is not just a matter of putting your feet up and waiting. For the hive to thrive, to be healthy and to produce lots of honey, producers must be vigilant.
About mid-April, Peters starts waking up her bees. They are given a pollen substitute and some sugar water and are checked for mites and treated if necessary.
In mid-May she opens and cleans the hives, which can be soiled after the winter. After that, she can relax somewhat but she is always aware of what is happening around the hives. She can easily spot the queen, knows what her drones and workers need to accomplish and is able to pick up on any irregularities in bee behaviour and take appropriate action.
Peters has been harvesting only once in the fall. With the kids away working or at school now, she and Keith harvest the honey themselves.
Once the honey has been extracted, the hives are cleaned and made ready for winter. A mixture of sugar and water is prepared in the feeding pail to feed bees until winter hits. Peters mixes a combination of lard, salt, sugar and wintergreen oil into grease patties and places them in the hive for additional nourishment over the winter. The wintergreen helps to repel mice. To assist with warmth, the hive is wrapped and insulated to help keep out the cold winter winds.
Peters hopes to start harvesting twice each season starting next year. Her hives are well positioned among flowers, fruit trees, neighbouring canola fields and alfalfa stands.
In the spring, when the fruit trees blossom, cherry-flavoured honey is the result. Harvesting the spring honey separately from the summer honey will highlight the taste difference between the two seasons.
Peters talks about her honey business almost as though it’s philosophy, discussing her love of the creatures and her detailed knowledge of the workings of the bee world. She uses words like “happy” and “aggressive” when she describes their behaviour, almost as though she can communicate with them.
She speaks of them as she would of her students: their work ethic, their supportive behaviour in the hive, their industriousness and their collective output.
Her involvement with her hives is not only honing her beekeeping technique; it is giving her a connection to Mother Earth.
“I don’t know what I’d do without my bees,” she said.