Starting in spring and all through until autumn’s frost knocks down Canada’s plant life, little black and yellow buzzing bees help our flowers, crops, and trees survive and thrive.
And while doing so, create a rather lucrative crop of honey, which Ron Greidanus harvests all summer long with the help of his beekeepers.
Greidanus opened Greidanus Honeybee Farm in 1998 with the help of his father, who ran a honey business, the Greidanus Honey Mill, in High River. He and his siblings have all branched out into their own honey businesses, making bee keeping and honey gathering a family affair.
“My family’s been doing this a long, long time,” he said, indicating that it began shortly after the end of the Second WorldWar when his uncle immigrated to Canada.
“My grandparents fought in the resistance against the Nazis,” he explained. When, after the war, Holland forced conscription, they put their son and daughter on a boat to New York.”
While the daughter settled in the eastern United States, that son — his uncle — headed west, eventually marrying a girl inAlberta.
“His father-in-law had a few hobby hives,” Greidanus explained. When his father came over with his family — including Greidanus, who was born in Holland — he had to decide what to do now that he was in Canada. His uncle suggested beekeeping, and it stuck.
With his uncle in Brooks and his father in High River, the Greidanus beekeeping dynasty was born. Greidanus estimates about a fourth of Alberta’s honeybees are owned by the Greidanus family, both directly under the Greidanus name and others.
“Dad’s operation has branched off with all the kids, the cousins branched off as well,” he said. “There’s about 300,000 hives owned by us.”
The Greidanus operations are all competitors, but friendly ones that often work together to help with things like buying equipment and containers. The buying power allows them quicker service and better discounts.
Greidanus tends to the basic honey bee. He buys them from all over, queens and starter colonies from California, NewZealand and Hawaii.
The starter colonies come with the queen and the workers needed to tend to her so she can grow the hive.
“There’s 5,000 bees to start,” Greidanus said. By the end of the season, if a hive’s growth is on track, there’ll be between60,000 and 80,000 bees in a colony.
“We started with about 40 sites in Stettler County,” Greidanus said, indicating a map with pins and stickers marking hive locations. “Every year, we grow.”
This year, Greidanus tended to 39,000 hives, with about 700 of them wintering well and splitting into a second cluster thisyear.
But what does this mean in honey?
“Hive honey production varies per hive,” Greidanus said, with factors like weather, location, parasites and illnesses playing afactor in how well a hive produces. “The average is 120-140 pounds (of honey) per hive.”
This year was a good year, with Greidanus bringing in about 180 pounds of honey per hive, though his best year was in2006, when he brought in 288 pounds per hive.
Workers go out to the hives, which are in wooden boxes with wooden slat honeycombs which can “slide out” to be harvested. Once bees get to producing wax, though, there’s no sliding going on. Hive workers have to use pry bars to pull the slats of honeycomb out, and need a good deal of physical strength to do it — all while bees are angrily buzzing around.
Beekeepers use smoke to dissuade bees from stinging, though it’s not calming as many people think, Greidanus said.
“Smoke doesn’t make bees calm,” he said. “It makes them think the hive is on fire.”
When that happens, bees go into survival mode rather than aggression mode, he explained, and begin eating honey so they can go and start a new hive somewhere else.
Still, “you get stung often enough,” he said.
His staff wear loose coveralls to help keep bees from stinging, along with nets around the face to keep bees out of the hair.However, he doesn’t let his workers wear gloves, as he believes that bare hands keep his keepers gentle with the bees.
“It’s about getting stung less rather than not being stung at all,” he said.
Greidanus brings a lot of his workers in from outside of Canada, as the work is seasonal and finding people with the right experience isn’t easy here in Canada. That doesn’t mean that someone who wants to raise bees as a hobby is going to find the doors closed to them.
“We help a bunch of hobbyists,” Greidanus said, explaining that he’s rather free with helping people learn the trade he’s known his whole life.
“The biggest beekeeper in Alberta got his start working for my father,” he noted, indicating it’s a family trend.
Once hives are harvested, they’re brought back to his shop just south of Buttermilk slough, where they go through the honey extractor. The hive boards are spun quickly, with centrifugal force pulling the honey out of the combs. The now empty combs are sent down the line while honey goes into a vat, where it’s separated from the wax.
Greidanus isn’t entirely sure if he believes neonicotinoids, a tabacco-based pesticide, is the cause of the bee decline. He hasn’t seen it here, with most of his hives doing very well.
“It’s a pesticide,” he said. “It kills bugs, including bees, but people don’t realize how closely these businesses work with the industry.”
He noted that killing off bees would kill off the company’s profit, since bees are needed for pollination. Instead, he believes the versa destructor, a spider mite, is a bigger cause of colony collapse.
The mite chews on the bee in its earliest stages, leaving scarring behind that makes bees susceptible to illnesses and viruses, and a generally shorter lifespan — so short at times that the bee never collects any honey.
Other risks include bacterial infections, like the American Falbrood, which is easily treated but spreads quickly. There’s only two types of antibiotics that can be used by beekeepers, and one only very rarely. With resistances growing, bacterial infections are becoming harder to stamp out.
Viral infections are usually able to make inroads due to the scarring caused by mites, Greidanus explained.
Then there’s bears.
“Bears don’t actually want the honey,” Greidanus explained, noting that Winnie the Poo is the exception. “What they really want is the protein — the bees and pupae inside the honey combs.”
Greidanus said he hasn’t had trouble with bears in years, but this year a bear sow and cub knocked down several hives and lunched on some of his colonies.
“I guess I’m not the only one who likes bees,” he said.