By Jill Pasquet
Illustration by Tara Fleming
When I was a kid, my grandfather, who lived in rural Nova Scotia, kept bees. We were used to seeing bees flying through the fields, settling on the back deck, and hanging around the yard. The sweet, warm smell of honey permeated the house from the back room where my grandfather extracted it from the combs. There was a great sound of industrious buzzing when we pressed our ears against a hive.
And my grandparents had fantastic gardens.
Now, long after my grandparents have sold their hobby farm and moved to the city, I have become the proud keeper of my first hive of bees.
I live just outside of St. John’s where my bees have access to fields of wildflowers and a nearby pond. I’m not sure if there are any bylaws regulating beekeeping, but the neighbours who know don’t mind and the neighbours who don’t haven’t noticed the little hive tucked in a protected corner of my backyard.
Let’s be clear: I haven’t quite earned the title of beekeeper yet. The bees still have much more to teach me than I know to do for them.
I began to find out about bees by contacting local beekeepers. Aubrey at Paradise Farms/Bee Natural and the folks at the Newfoundland Bee Company have been immensely helpful and welcoming, and their enthusiasm has been catchy.
One of the first things I learned was honey made in Newfoundland is unusually pure, since the kinds of parasites that commonly affect them are nonexistent here. Plus, the instances of disease are very low. In fact, Newfoundland is one of the few places where you don’t have to automatically treat your bees with pesticides and chemicals—which inevitably ends up in the honeycomb and honey.
My beekeeping year began last winter when I ordered a starter colony, or “nucleus”, of bees. The “nuc”, as it’s called, consists of a few frames of bees and larvae, including her majesty the queen, one or two frames of honey and pollen (food for the bees), and a spare frame for them to build honeycomb onto.
I picked the bees up in a specially-made travel box and installed them into my own “super”, or hive body, which I had mail-ordered and put together myself beforehand.
Yes, installing the bees was nerve-wracking, since I was pretty much just letting a few thousand bees loose in my neighbourhood.
Miraculously, though, they clung to the frames as I transferred them to their new home. The few stragglers followed their sisters into the super.
Ever since getting past my initial intimidation about getting stung, keeping the bees has been pretty easy.
These supers are the building blocks of a beehive, and as my colony of bees grows, I will add more supers for honey and more bees. My bees spent their summer building honeycomb on the empty frames in the super and gradually filling the comb with nectar, honey, pollen, eggs, and larvae at various stages of development.
I opened up the hive every few weeks to peek at them and help them with basic maintenance of the hive.
It’s been pretty amazing to watch my relatively few bees blossoming into a healthy colony—buzzing with activity and literally dripping with honey. Honey is harvested at the end of the summer and into fall and one healthy colony can produce 75 to 100 pounds of surplus honey. Because my bees are not a well-established colony yet, I left this summers’ honey in the hive for them to feed on over the winter, where they’ll clump together in the middle of the hive, huddling and “shivering” their little wings to keep warm together until the spring.
Getting to know and learn more about the bees has been really rewarding. They’re pretty low-maintenance, really, but it’s a true pleasure to see them soaring through my backyard and hovering around their small hive. I’ve gotten to introduce a beneficial natural element into my environment and also to reconnect with the excitement and wonder that my beekeeping grandfather shared with me.