If Amanda Goodman Lee had not volunteered to hold a hissing cluster of cockroaches at Science World Vancouver, she might never have discovered her passion for beekeeping.
She and a team were tasked with picking up the massive insects and placing them in a beaker at the museum’s “Science of Fear” exhibit. At the time, Amanda was in advertising, and Science World was her client.
When Amanda finished, she felt confident enough to try her hand at the second challenge, which involved interacting with bees. She sat on a stool in an observation booth while bees were poured onto a piece of bristle board she held. The bees climbed up around her face and neck, but to her surprise, she wasn’t as scared as she thought she would be.
“I was very calm and I felt very relaxed,” she recalled to HARVEST in a phone interview from her home in the Creston Valley.
“I felt like my blood pressure came down and the beekeeper who was doing the demonstration with me said, ‘you’re so calm. You’d be an excellent beekeeper.’”
She went home and told her husband, Jeff Lee, who so happened to have a few books on beekeeping at their home. Perhaps a retirement activity?
“We decided, why wait? And we took a course.”
In 2012, the couple founded their own commercial honey production business, Honey Bee Zen Apiaries Ltd., and split time between this endeavour and their existing jobs. Five years later, they decided to pursue beekeeping full-time. They purchased Swan Valley Honey in Creston, a long-standing business with more than 50 years of history and two previous owners.
The bustling coastal metropolis of Vancouver is now a distant memory for the couple. They have found that life is peaceful in the countryside, with its rolling hills, fresh conifer forests and abundant wildlife.
“Amanda and I, we had incredibly stressful jobs. We were at the top of our game in the media world,” Jeff said “…What I found after I started to get into beekeeping, was that it changed my attitudes about life in general. I tend to be much more in tune with what’s going on around me, much more sensitive of the things that go on around me … We got our lives back … We got back to our roots.”
A ‘hive’ mind of fellow business owners
Amanda has benefited from a solid network of women business owners and entrepreneurs. Within her industry, she has found inspiration, mentorship and courage. If she has questions about finances, staffing or budgeting, she always has someone to turn to.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie amongst women entrepreneurs. I find that in the beekeeping community, I have a lot of friends. We’re there to help each other out with knowledge and support.”
Amanda and Jeff’s bees become active in March, after wintering in a semi-dormant state within their hives. The couple keeps a close eye on the bees during this time to ensure they have enough food and that the hives are in good condition.
In May, they relocate the bees from the cherry and apple orchards to a honey yard to kick start the pollination process.
Honey is collected during the warmer months, up until mid-August, when the couple begins to prepare the bees for winter. The bees remain in the honey yard until October.
The couple markets liquid honey and honeycomb, and transforms the raw product into beeswax candles, lip balms, salves and furniture polish.
Swan Valley Honey is currently the largest producer of local pure and natural honey in the Kootenays, and it supplies about 35 stores with its products. Between 400 to 600 bee colonies winter at the business.
“This is a farming business in the sense that you have to work with nature and you have to work with the bees and you can’t push things super fast,” explained Jeff.
Despite how rewarding they have found the lifestyle, beekeeping has not come without challenges, he added.
“It has become very complicated because of the way we, as a society, have treated nature and the way we’ve treated bees.”
Modern-day bee keeping challenges
As vice president of B.C. Honey Producers’ Association, one of the issues Jeff discusses frequently is the role globalization has played in spreading disease amongst bee populations in B.C.
“We’re wrestling constantly with problems around how to keep our bees alive. How to make sure the bees are healthy. We have some pests that are universal around the world now and it’s causing huge problems for beekeepers and by connection, the farmers that depend upon bees.”
Varroa, a parasite that jumped from the Asian bee to the locally cultivated European honey bee, presents a particular problem. The parasite attaches itself to bees, feeds off its fat cells, and transmits deadly viruses. European honey bees do not have any resistance to it.
“If the [parasite] levels are too high then we have long damage taking place in the hives and so when we come back to our hives in the spring to open them up, they’re dead,” Jeff explained.
Jeff said prolonged spells of mild autumn weather have accelerated varroa growth in recent years, a problem for beekeepers, who must keep varroa levels under one per cent in order for colonies to survive. Beekeepers use various organic compounds to control mite populations in hives, like formic acid (found in the mandibles of ants) and oxalic acid (found in rhubarb). Still, there is no medication to treat the viruses that mites carry.
Mites often contribute significant losses to bee colonies, an issue that Jeff has personally experienced.
“Our losses this year are higher than I would like. They’re probably running around the provincial average, maybe a bit higher than the provincial average in the last few years.”
He added that while the average provincial mortality rate for bees currently rests around 32 per cent, some beekeepers have suffered losses of up to 80 per cent.
Jeff explained that the reason other farms suffered higher losses than they did, was because the most recent batch of varroa had developed a resistance to a popular insecticide called Amitraz. Jeff had used oxalic acid instead, saving many of their bees from death.
While pests present a significant problem for beekeepers, the industry is growing. Young farmers, particularly women, are taking up the craft.
“I find these younger women who are stepping up and doing this very inspiring,” said Amanda. “Even though I’m older, mentorship comes from all ages. There’s a lot of bravery in going out on your own and starting your own business.”
Amanda learned more than a decade ago that inspiration feeds growth and can come from the most unusual places. Picking up bugs at the Science of Fear exhibit changed her life.
“You could say hissing cockroaches got me into beekeeping.”
To find the beekeepers, visit honeybeezen.com.
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