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Family abuzz about backyard bees

Family and their bees part of pilot project in Yorkton
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Garth Hunter and daughter Ava Hunter work with their backyard honey bees.
YORKTON - In mid-May a mother and her son appeared before Yorkton Council to lobby for changes to the city’s Animal Control Bylaw to allow for urban beekeeping on a small scale.  

Allison Henderson-Hunter, and her eight-year-old son Ewan, were hoping to start collecting honey from backyard bees in the city.  

Henderson-Hunter’s presentation laid out a plan of how to keep bees, in limited numbers, safely, and included information of other cities which have allowed the practice.  

Council ended up approving a pilot project and Henderson-Hunter and Ewan have been a part of the effort to show that backyard bees can be kept safely in the city. 

Their hive is now producing honey. 

“Tasting the first honey was super exciting and rewarding,” said Henderson-Hunter. “We were surprised that the busy little box of bees in the backyard could produce such delicious honey, and in such abundance.  

Ewan was thrilled too. He says that he was surprised by how good it was and how different it was from store-bought honey. He also felt like it was rewarding.  

“Each honey box represented a different point in nectar collection time, and each one tasted very different. The earlier honey was amber in colour and very flavourful, while the July honey was golden and a bit simpler on the palate,” noted Henderson-Hunter. 

But, back to the beginning; after approval at Council for the pilot project how arduous, or not, was the process to finally get the hive into the backyard?  

​“The process to get the hive into our yard was fairly straight forward,” said Henderson-Hunter. “We simply distributed letters to a group of nearby neighbours and had the Bylaw Officer, Nicole Baptist, inspect our hive.” 

But, the bees themselves were not quite as easy to deal with. 

“Keeping our first hive going was a challenge,” said Henderson-Hunter. “The cold snap in late spring killed so many bees that we didn't have enough for a viable hive. Any temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius can make it really difficult for bees to fly and below that they are basically paralyzed by the cold. So in those temperatures bees may not make it back to the hive or may not be able to move up to join the cluster in the hive to stay warm. “ 

It was to the point they needed more bees and thankfully local apiarists were willing to help. 

“Sasha and Dan Wasylenchuk of Howland's Honey were incredibly generous and donated a new hive to support the pilot project,” explained Henderson-Hunter.

“Once this hive was up and running and we'd made it into warmer weather in June, we were all set.  

“We got the whole family involved in painting the ‘supers’ or honey boxes and made sure we provided ample water. The bees seem to love their paddling pool.” 

So how did those in the neighbourhood feel about the arrival of bees? 

​“All nine neighbours who were notified of our hive were supportive, but one,” said Henderson-Hunter. “That neighbour eventually came around when they realized that the bees kept to themselves and were sticking to our yard.  

“We'll be thanking all of our neighbours with a gift of honey for their support.” 

Of course there was a lot to learn in a short time for the neophyte beekeepers. 

​“We climbed a steep learning curve in the early spring,” admitted Henderson-Hunter. “The cold weather in May and early June was difficult to get the bees through.  

“Learning how to feed the bees in early spring and choosing the right spot that got the right amount of sun was also a challenge. We eventually found a nice location that was both somewhat protected from northwesterly winds and got the most sun possible in our backyard. That seemed to work well.  

“All along we thought winter was the most difficult season for bees, but here it's actually the spring that can make or break a hive.” 

And there were a few surprises along the way too. 

“​We were sadly surprised to find so many bees dead in our first hive after a few of the spring cold spells,” reiterated Henderson-Hunter.  

“Once the new hive was established, we were surprised to see so few bees around the yard, outside of their flight path.  

“On extraction day when we took off all the honey boxes it was amazing to see how many bees were living in the hive.  

“And of course we were happily surprised by the 15 gallons of honey that the bees produced in merely three honey boxes. We have a strong first-year queen thanks to Sasha and Dan and she's laying (eggs) really well.” 

So far, the desire to keep backyard bees hasn’t exactly caught on with others. 

“We haven't had any interest from anyone else thinking about a hive, but I'm not sure if folks know how to reach us as we don't have a listed landline. We'd be happy to share what we learned this first season,” said Henderson-Hunter. 

So, what would the new beekeepers tell others in terms of key piece of information on keeping backyard bees? 

​“Take a beekeeping course and talk to local experts, possibly visit their operations before embarking on this journey,” said Henderson-Hunter. 

“Make sure you've got a strong queen, be mindful of the quick changes in the weather in spring and find a rhythm of checking your bees that is regular but not too frequent. They don't like you to check on the inside of the hive more than once every 7-10 days.  

“Enjoy watching your bees. You can learn a lot by watching their behaviour.” 

Then there is the equipment needed. 

“Extractors are expensive, but a good stainless steel one is worth it,” said Henderson-Hunter.  

“At first we considered using a donated old ringer washer that had been converted for use as a honey extractor, but were concerned about the food safety of the drum.  

“Ken, Nancy and Sarah Wood generously lent us their modern stainless steel extractor and it worked like a charm.  

“The community support for this project has been fantastic.” 

Henderson-Hunter noted the impact of the unexpected cold of spring. The heat of the summer of 2021 was less of an issue. 

“The bees seem to love the heat,” she said. “They have produced an incredible amount of honey in a short amount of time. 

“Besides making sure there is adequate water in our yard for them, which we do in a little paddling pool near the hive, the heat and drought haven't impacted our hive one bit.  

“And now we can make honey-sweetened iced tea.” 

The hive will stay in place through the winter next. 

​“Yes, we plan on wintering the hive for sure,” said Henderson-Hunter.  

“Next spring if we can have two hives we will try an early spring split to bring a second queen and a second hive into production.” 

Sometimes great ideas fade as you get along the road, has the enthusiasm remained for the new ‘keepers? 

​ “On the day we extracted honey Ewan said, ‘Mom and Dad, I haven't told you this yet but thank you for making my dreams come true’,” said his mom. “Well that melted our hearts.  

“And when asked if he thought we should do this again next year Ewan said ‘what, you mean this is a yearly thing? I thought this was forever'. 

“So, honestly, after hearing that our enthusiasm is still going strong and we're in it for the long haul.  

“Ewan's excitement hasn't waned one bit, although he has found it pretty hot in his bee suit on bee check days.  

“And if we're able to move towards selling the honey from our backyard hive we can teach our kids about entrepreneurship too.  

“It's a lot of work but it is worth it . . . 

“As long as the City is onboard, we plan to keep going and keep learning.  

“Ewan is still super keen and I think all of us have grown in our appreciation for bees and our interest in beekeeping.” 

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