Northern Ontario Agriculture Spotlight: Beekeeping
“I got into beekeeping accidentally,” says Kathie Hogan, who organizes a beekeepers group in Powassan that now includes 150 members. It all began when Hogan’s son took a short beekeeping course from Board’s Honey Farm in Nipissing and then started keeping his own bees. “I was his Vanna White,” she says, playing the role of sidekick and helping him with the hives. But when her son moved away she was left with the bees and found that the role of Vanna White had not fully prepared her to take over the apiary equivalent of all of the Wheel of Fortune responsibilities. That drove Hogan to try to learn more about bees.
The first meeting of the Powassan beekeeping group occurred six years ago when Hogan, looking for opportunities to learn, invited the local OMAFRA Bee Inspector to speak at a public meeting. She says 25 people attended, “and the rest, they say, is history.” Of the current 150 members, some 60 regularly attend the monthly meetings, which are an opportunity to listen to a speaker and share knowledge with other beekeepers.
Sharing knowledge is a core aspect of the group. “I could write a book about what I know about beekeeping now,” says Hogan, “but, I could write an equally sized book on what I still have to learn.” Like any other agricultural industry, keeping up with the constant innovation is critical to success, and the Powassan beekeeping group facilitates that transfer of knowledge from apiarist to apiarist.
Hogan stresses the importance of not just the group, but of beekeeping as a whole: “I really view them as the canary in the coalmine, if the bees aren’t doing well then our environment is not functioning.” Bees play a crucial role in the lifecycle of plants as they assist with pollination. The transfer of pollen allows plants to fertilize themselves, causing them to grow seeds, fruit, and vegetables. As Hogan says, “without bees we would be pretty bereft of food.” Honeybees generally get all the attention when it comes to bees, but more and more the bees’ role as pollinator is being recognized and appreciated.
The area around Powassan is an excellent spot for raising bees. As most of the agriculture in the area is livestock, there are a lot of hayfields with wild flowers which allow the bees to thrive and play their role in the ecosystem. The absence of large scale cash crop operations means there is no major usage of neonicotinoid pesticide sprays, which can be fatal to bees.
The availability of pollinating plants has allowed Hogan to grow her bee population to 300 000. The number of bees naturally cycles throughout the year, but the average hive has about 60 000 bees and Hogan now has five of them. On a good year the average hive produces about 100 pounds of honey. Hogan says that takes a lot of effort to harvest all that honey: “it’s a lot of work, but it’s totally worth it.” Harvest isn’t the only time of the year the bees need maintenance either, as with any livestock “it’s a twelve season job.” The bees need to be protected during the summer from other animals that would like the harvest the honey, and even in the winter the beekeeper needs to ensure the hives are clear of snow so that air can circulate through.
For those who are interested in becoming beekeepers, Hogan has some suggestions. She first recommends joining a bee group. There are a number of bee groups in the North, including Muskoka, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, and Thunder Bay. Second, she says newcomers should offer to help another beekeeper for a season before starting their own hives: “You can look at all the YouTube videos you want, but you need to have live people to talk to.” Finally, get a bee buddy. The bee boxes can be heavy and it’s always good to have a second set of hands around the hive.
For non-beekeepers there are still ways to help the bees. Hogan suggests letting part of your yard grow up naturally and planting more flowers. Especially good are flowers that are not red because bees cannot see red, so flowers that are purple or blue will be more attractive to bees.
Last year the Powassan beekeepers held their first ever Honey Fest, a day of activities for honey lovers of all stripes to learn, connect, and of course sample some local honey. The highlight of the event last year was a taste test to see which local producer made the best honey. This year’s event will be held Saturday, October 19 from 9am to 12 noon. There will be live hives, honey for sale, producers to share their knowledge and, of course, honey treats. The main feature this year will be an international honey tasting. Hogan encourages everyone to attend, and, if they think they’re up to it, to participate in the beekeeping industry: “it’s challenging, but it’s very rewarding, and it’s a great community.”
“It was a perfect year” for beekeeping, concludes Hogan, “who knows how next year will be, but beekeepers are optimistic, so we’ll chug along and we’ll keep learning and keep looking forward.”
For more information on the Powassan Beekeeping group, the 2019 Honey Fest, or other bee related topics, you can contact Kathie Hogan at 705-482-4985 or firstname.lastname@example.org.