Busy Bees

Note: All WP Saskatchewan Transcripts are edited for flow and readability.

(Andrew) “The most important one is that queen. There’s another drone there. So, I’m just hoping we can get a look at our queen without having to go anywhere else. Our queen is hiding from us, she’s probably in the lower box. Now I’ve actually been stung twice since we’ve been in here.  I’ve got one on my belly, and one on my finger.  The finger one was my fault.”

(Andrew) “I’m Andrew Hamilton. This is Hamilton Apiaries. I’m from a long line of beekeepers. I grew up at my grandparents bee ranch just outside of Codette, Saskatchewan. Before that, my great grandfather did it. And then we’ve got relatives over in Scotland, it goes back about eight generations. Family’s been doing it for a long time, and lots of stories.”

(Narrator) A tiny insect that can beat its wings 11,400 times a minute, can visit up to 100 flowers on a pollination trip, and intuitively uses arguably one of the strongest shapes we know, a hexagon, to store its food. The honeybee. What’s the big deal about this buzzing bee?(Andrew) “Lots of numbers thrown out there, but they’re responsible for our food production. The bees go away, our food goes away, and our population suddenly shrinks.”

(Narrator) Andrew grew up in small town Saskatchewan, known mostly for its golden wheat. But he has honey running through his veins. He was raised in a special area in Saskatchewan.(Andrew) “I grew up just outside of Nipawin and we kind of called it the Golden Triangle. Those three towns are in a triangle. I’ve heard people say you could basically jump from beehive to beehive up there just because there’s so many beekeepers up there. It’s definitely the popular place to be if you’re in bees.”

(Narrator) A province full of surprises, rich in resources that are perfect for the bees to thrive. Despite our minimal tree cover and vegetation, Saskatchewan has a wonderful blend of flowers for the bees to pollinate, resulting in all kinds of honeys.(Andrew) “Caraganas and maple trees are major pollen producers for the bees. Dandelions. Dandelions are huge. Those are probably the three main ones in Saskatchewan. As far as honey production goes, my absolute favorite honey is from borage, and it’s not a crop that many people have heard of. It’s an oilseed. I wish I could make it as popular as canola.”

“You can’t really tell it’s borage until it blooms. And as soon as it would bloom, you’d see two or three beekeepers move their bees right into close proximity of it. It makes a super nice, white honey, and it’s super soft. Canola honey is a brick, whereas this stuff is smooth right from the start. It never changes.”

“Clovers in particular, they have a really long flowering season, which when your business is honey production that’s important. It provides a food source for the bees; a long term food source. Canola produces a lot of honey really fast. When canola is blooming, the bees pretty much ignore every other flower. But it’s short lived. It creates a really nice white honey, but it’s a really hard honey. And when it’s granulated it’s almost like white sugar. It’s very granular, which is hard for the bees to eat and it’s not as nice for humans to consume. I prefer the clover honeys.”

(Narrator) No matter the type of honey. Production is the name of the game in the Saskatchewan honey world. There’s a small window every year to make honey and beekeepers everywhere know it well.(Andrew) “Saskatchewan and Alberta are the highest production per colony in the world. We produce about 200 pounds of honey per colony. We do all of that in about six weeks; from the time the canola starts at the end of August, is our main honey production. Whereas other places in the world, they’ll have honey production year round but they don’t produce as much honey.”

“When my great grandfather was still keeping bees, his brother came over from Scotland and they went out to the bee yard. All the boxes were stacked up really high. And he said, ‘You’re joking. Those aren’t full of honey. You just stacked those up to show off.’ And my great grandfather’s like, ‘No, no, no, they’re full of honey.’ And so my grandfather takes all these supers down and ‘Nope, full of honey.’ ‘You just took honey from all these hives and stacked it up!’ So they drove around from bee yard to bee yard and prove that every beehive had this much honey in it. By the end of it, the great uncle was like, ‘Well, I guess, yes, you do produce a lot of honey here.’”

“But it’s a very short period of time. Summer hits and my kids don’t see me. I’m full tilt working.”

(Narrator) But nature has no master, and sometimes Andrew and his crew find themselves at the mercy of the harsh Saskatchewan elements.(Andrew) “I get a little bit more warm weather than the north does. I have a real issue with wind down here. I’m used to hills and trees up north and they just don’t have them down here. And as a result, I have a lot of issues with finding bee yards that are not too windy. Because queens need to fly way up in the air and if it’s too windy, they have a hard time mating properly.”

“I remember as a little kid, looking at these pictures and everyone wondering – everyone in the room wondering – why does great grandfather have all these rocks on top of his hives? Few years go by, I moved down here. I discovered why there were rocks on all the lids. It’s because it’s so bloody windy down here. But it answered a family question, a long term family question, just by moving down here.”

“The biggest thing would be the winter; is that 6 to 8 months of winter, it’s brutal on the bees. And it’s a big, big factor that dictates our beekeeping.”

(Narrator) As a problem solver and bee lover, Andrew has set to work to breed the perfect honeybee for the long, cold winters of the prairies.(Andrew) “The advantage to breeding bees in Saskatchewan primarily would be winter hardiness. I’ve got different criteria for my breeding selection. I want honey production, obviously, and I want the bees to build up fast. And I like to work the bees essentially how I’m dressed. So I want calm bees. My first criteria is: Can they winter? So if a hive dies over winter, it’s a pretty easy selection process, right? It’s dead. I can’t breed off of it.”

“There’s different varieties of honeybees. there’s Russian and Italian and Carniolan and Buckfast. Each one has specific attributes. I breed a mongrel. I call it a Hamilton Mongrel. I’ve crossbred a bunch of different ones. I’ve got bees that my grandparents had raised and we’ve crossbred them with other genetic lines. I’m just trying to raise the best bee I can.”

“I get frustrated with people when they’re convinced that we need to bring in imported bees that are just going to end up dying over the winter anyways. Why not keep things local and have a better bee?”

(Narrator) All this work to breed a winter-safe bee on the windy flatlands in the middle of the prairies. Why?(Andrew) “For me, the reason I like beekeeping here so much is we have a really intense season. It’s pedal to the metal and then we do get a break. We get the winter to rest and build equipment and recover. But it’s absolutely amazing to see these colonies come out of winter and they’ll be weak and tired from the winter. And then they start getting going in May. Just to see the growth that is possible, what we’re actually capable of in such a short period of time, it’s really impressive.”

(Narrator) An intense few months of total focus on the bees, the honey, and all it entails. A typical production season is nonstop action.(Andrew) “It varies by the seasons. So in the spring we’re trying to build the colonies up, get them strong, we’re cleaning up dead hives from the winter, maybe feeding them if need be. And then the end of May we start splitting them and making up our winter losses, producing new hives, new queens. And that kind of continues through June. And then July, is when honey season starts. We have to start putting on extra boxes. Honey hits. And from the start of July to the end of August, it’s full tilt honey production.”

“In order for us to keep strong, healthy colonies that will overwinter, we need to take the honey away. If they fill that brood nest with canola honey, then they have a hard time wintering. We benefit, the bees benefit. The beekeeper is really not this horrid monster that’s trying to steal all the bees work but by taking it, we’re actually helping the bees survive our Saskatchewan winters.”

(Narrator) And it is not just Andrew who is into bees in our province. The rich history of hobbyist honey in Saskatchewan goes back to a decade of decadence.(Andrew) “The Regina Bee Club, prior to the ‘80s… ‘85, bees weren’t really overwintered in Saskatchewan. They were usually brought up from California. Prior to that anyone who wanted bees had to get these packages of bees brought up. So that’s kind of how it was started, it was a co-operative to get your bees and get started and teach new people. Now we’ve morphed into just educating the public and helping support the bees and educating new people.”

(Narrator) With easy access to start beekeeping, who exactly is taking the challenge on?(Andrew) “There’s lots of hobbyists, which is who The Regina Bee Club primarily deals with. My grandfather, he hated hobbyist beekeepers. He was adamant that hobbyist beekeepers were going to ruin the world. And so I moved here with the same kind of notion that hobbyists were evil. I eventually did get involved with the club and started meeting people. And hobbyists are teachers, lawmakers, and accountants, and every walk of life. And if you want the public to care about bees, they are the public.”

(Narrator) With new endeavors come new lessons and relying on trial and error can squash your sweet dreams fairly quickly.(Andrew) “New beekeepers, their biggest mistake would be squishing the queen. They’re nervous, so they’re maybe shaking a bit or they don’t know how to act around the bees. And it’s one bug in this box of thousands of bugs, and somehow they managed to kill that one bug. It mystifies me. And it’s something that unless you have the experience; and that comes from spending time with a beekeeper, it’s a mistake that’s going to get made. We have a big problem with the varroa mites which feeds on the bees. It also allows the bees to become infected with viruses. The two biggest issues in Saskatchewan would probably be varroa mite and queen issues.”

(Narrator) For Andrew, being with bees has always been a way of life. The norm, a part of the family. As more people become interested and educated, he’s happy to share his history, his heart, and, of course, his honey.

(Andrew) “I never dreamed that I would be teaching people and talking and giving interviews and stuff. It was just not my forte. And then once I got involved at the club and started teaching people, I see the value in it and it’s become a big part of what I do now.”

This WP Saskatchewan story features beekeeper and honey producer Andrew Hamilton of Hamilton Apiaries in Zehner, Saskatchewan.

WP (Work & Play) Saskatchewan is a fund-raising production of the registered non-profit charitable Saskatchewan Safety Council (Charitable Registration Number: 11914-0382-RR). It serves the strategic priorities of the organization by creating community connections and provides a new platform upon which injury prevention messaging can be communicated.