As Aug. winds down, so does the busy season of Vancouver Island’s most buzz-worthy residents: the bees. Beekeeping is booming on Vancouver Island—both commercially, and for hobbyist enjoyment; Vancouver Island is the home of one quarter of honeybees in B.C.
A Buzzing Business
One of the best-known beekeepers on the Island is Theo Fredrich Sr. of Fredrich’s Honey on Cedar Road in Cedar (south of Nanaimo). Established in 1966, Fredrich’s is run by Theo and Margaret Fredrich and recently, their son Theo Fredrich Jr., also stepped into the family business that is approximately 200 hives strong. The farm is open to visitors seven days a week and while most of the hives are off in the wilderness, it has a few hives along the driveway and a small shop where visitors can learn about the bees and beekeepers, what they do, and, of course, sample and purchase the locally raised honey and honey products. Mrs. Fredrich was in the shop when I visited Fredrich’s Honey and was happy to answer all of my questions, and more.
The golden allure of honey can distract from the bees’ most important purpose, which Mrs. Fredrich reminds visitors, is to pollinate plants. The hives are kept around blackberry blossoms while they are in bloom, and then moved to other locations. At the beginning of Aug., many of the Fredrich’s hives were located off of Nanaimo Lakes Road near extensive patches of Fireweed. The warm weather has brought the nectar in those plants up out of the ground and to the stems so that bees can pollinate the plants.
The summer of 2012 has been a good year for beekeepers. According to hobbyist beekeeper, Roblyn Hunter, this summer was much more productive than the last. Hunter has six hives: three in Nanaimo near VIU, and three in Cedar. Honey production varies from hive to hive even within the same year. This year, one of her larger hives produced over 100 pounds of honey; a smaller one produced 30 pounds. Even within short distances, there is a noticeable difference: her hives in Nanaimo did much better than the ones in Cedar.
June was a cooler month, and according to Mrs. Fredrich, the prime honey season really started on July 4 with the first run of warm weather in the Nanaimo area. Not only does it have to get hot for the bees to have a good harvest, but the warm temperatures have to be sustained for several weeks. Near the end of Aug., Deirdre Hunter of Fredrich’s updates “We still would like to have another few weeks of hot weather to have an optimum crop.” But things have been good this year.
A Beekeeper’s Year
What does a beekeeper do? Roblyn Hunter walked me through a beekeeper’s season, from Jan. to Dec.
Jan.: During the winter a beekeeper gets a break—most of what is done is upkeep on the hives, and repairing equipment.
Feb.: The beekeeper checks that the bees aren’t starving. If a frame feels too light, the beekeeper may want to put some sugar on it to make sure the bees don’t starve.
Mar.: Weather-depending, the beekeeper might want to go in and see who has survived the winter and determine whether they need feeding.
Apr.: This is the optimal time for new beekeepers to get started with new hives, nooks, and packages to start the year; this is when the beekeeper finds out how the bees did over the winter.
May: If it’s a good month a beekeeper can split hives and raise new queens. Splitting a hive can mean taking a section off the top—the hive is made of boxed sections stacked on top of each other. They become two separate hives and the one without a queen will raise its own. This has to be done at a time of year when the new queen can leave the hive to be mated without getting chilled or lost in the rain. Splitting a hive can be done at any time during the summer. June/July: The nectar may have started coming in during May, but this is when the real production starts. It’s the job of the beekeeper to make sure that the hive has enough room to expand and bring honey in. June and July are the golden honey months and this is when the year’s success is determined.
Aug./Sept.: Once the peak honey production season is over, Hunter will assess the health of the hive: see how the queen is doing, and whether the brood (eggs) needs care for mites. “We’re trying to breed toward mite-resistant genes—trying to get local bees that are able to cope with mites,” Hunter says. “I have three hives in the backyard and I just checked to see what the mite levels were. In two I replaced the queen in them because they were not local stock and I really wanted to get local stock. They had huge mite levels because they haven’t been bred to cope with the mites and the one that I had from last year that is locally raised for the genetic ability to resist mites had a very low mite count.” Aug. and Sept. is also a time for making sure that there is a good supply of brood in the hive to last the winter.
Oct.: Is a time for leaving the hive alone, although Hunter puts a Styrofoam wrap around her hives for the winter.
Nov./Dec.: Some people will treat for mites at this time, but beekeepers try to do as little treating as possible. Hunter adds, “There are some good treatments that harm the environment very little and don’t leave any residue and so I’ll do one treatment like that [at the end of summer] to bring the mite level down and hopefully the new queen and her genetic progeny will produce mite-resistant bees.”
A Mitey Wind
Mites have recently become a problem for Vancouver Island beekeepers—especially the varroa mite (which makes bees susceptible to disease), which in conjunction with other factors made beekeeping on the Island a tough business a few years ago. Ninety percent of the Fredrich’s bee population was wiped out and new bees had to be imported from New Zealand. Hunter says that bees on the Island now have to be treated for mites, or they won’t survive. “Once [mites] get established, you can’t eradicate it, you can only manage it,” she says. But some beekeepers have been successful with breeding bees that can tolerate mites.
Buzzed About Bees?
The Nanaimo Beekeepers Club meets most months. At meetings they have a library of books and have topics for discussion and Mr. Frederich hosts workshops on the second Saturday of the month so that people can learn how to work with bees. Roblyn Hunter also adds, “We’re hoping to do some of mentored idea where new beekeepers can connect with beekeepers who have been doing it for awhile, but we haven’t got anything in place for that yet.”
For more information and enquiries into beekeeping on Vancouver Island, visit <http:// www.nanaimobeekeepers.com/ index.html>