Hiking With Honey Bees

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jun 19, 2018 9:41 AM

A gorgeous day in May finds me driving at a snail's pace on a back road in the Goulds, hoping I haven't driven past my destination. Finally, I spot the yellow and white balloons tied to a tree I was told to keep an eye out for. I'm at Adelaide's Newfoundland Honey Inc. to experience the wildflower reserve and meet some honey bees. I'm getting a quick look at their Honeybee Hike and a tour of the operation in advance of its June opening.

Paul and Brenda Dinn formed the business last year after three years of recreational beekeeping. Paul explains they got started mostly by chance. A friend mentioned their dog loved to run through fireweed, a plant that can grow six feet tall and is found all over the Goulds neighbourhood of St. John’s. Initially, Paul worried it might be an invasive species that would take over his land. “I started reading that fireweed produces one of the best honeys in the world and it’s highly sought after. So then I started thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder if we should try getting into beekeeping.’ And we did,” says Paul.

Last year they made enough honey to sell, so they got mason jars and did up some labels and went to the St. John’s Farmers’ Market. They only expected to have a handful of customers, but they sold all 300 bottles in an hour. The next week they returned with the rest of their honey and sold out again. What had started as a relaxing hobby and a way to get their own honey-fix had turned into a successful company.

When they first got into beekeeping, the Dinns had three colonies; now they have 20, and expect to expand to between 60 and 100 by the end of this summer. Adelaide’s has become Paul’s full-time job and when she retires, Brenda will join him. It’s an “encore career,” as Paul calls it, something to do in their golden years.

“You’ll never see beekeeping with us as this big industrial-style beekeeping, where they’ve got bees all crammed on a pallet and they’re lifting them with cranes and hoist them around. That’s not us. We want to do as natural beekeeping as possible, and low-impact beekeeping, so the bees are benefiting by being here, they’re doing well,” he explains. “We’d rather leave them with the majority of the honey and just sell a little bit to whoever, ya know?”

It’s an approach that makes sense. After all, if you introduce too many honey bees to an area, the surrounding flowers can’t support them. 

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Paul offers a peek inside hives during a tour of his honey bee operation.

Amongst the Bees
After getting sized for a beekeeping jacket, Paul advises me to pull my socks over my jeans so bees can’t fly up my leg. And then we’re out the door and into the backyard. His family has owned this 10-acre property for over 100 years, he tells me, but we’ll only explore a fraction of it. As we traipse along, I keep checking my feet to make sure I don’t step on any bees. Paul’s cautioned me that they like to drink from puddles and dew on the ground.

Stopping at a group of hives, I zip up the jacket and pull the hood with the mesh screen over my face. It’s a precautionary measure, though; honey bees prefer not to sting people (and doing so kills them). 

“Bees actually recognize people. They’ll recognize our faces because they see us and they know we’re not a threat to them,” he says. Instead of stinging, they typically bump into you.

With long gloves tugged up past my elbows, I watch the bees swarming, going in and out of the hives. Then Paul unpacks the smoker, a small circular can with a pump on the side. The smoke calms the bees, so it’s easier to check on the hives.

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Paul uses a smoker to help calm the bees.

Paul slowly pulls out each frame to see how honey production is going. “Do you still have your spoon?” he asks. I hand it to him and he scrapes some honey off the frame and passes it back for me to taste. It’s the best I’ve ever had.

Paul is practically an encyclopedia of apiary knowledge. Every hive is different; some could have a strong queen, while in another the queen could be failing. I’m surprised to learn that queen bees don’t exactly rule with the divine rights of kings. If the queen isn’t living up to the hive’s standards, they’ll turn on her. “A lot of people think the queen is the one in charge. But the colony…act as one organism, and they’ll make decisions for what’s best for the colony. So [if] that queen isn’t laying as much as she should or if she’s weak and not well, the colony will get rid of her and make a new queen.”

Beekeeper’s Life
As Paul explains, there’s a lot involved with beekeeping. “I’ll get up early in the morning and I’ll go down and I’ll just observe what the bees are doing from a distance. And if I see them just slowly coming out of the hive and not doing too much, it’s fine,” he says. “But if you see all of a sudden there’s a bunch of bees, maybe there was a mouse or a shrew or something trying to get in at the bees, at the honey. Shrews are actually the worst thing in the world for honey bees. In the wintertime, if they get in there they can actually kill an entire hive.”

If something’s disturbing the bees, Paul will hang back to figure it out and then intervene, but beekeepers mostly leave them alone. The Dinns check the hives every 10 days or so to see how the bees are doing.

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And in Newfoundland at least, the bees appear to be doing just fine. Cut off from the mainland, it’s harder for diseases and parasites (such as the varroa destructor, a disease-carrying mite that feeds off the blood of bees) to reach local bee populations. Since our bees are generally healthy, they don’t need to be medicated, and that makes for great honey.

“We’re really lucky in this province to have healthy honey bees, lots of wildflowers, the weather’s spectacular for bees. We’ve got all the right things that we really could do well from a business standpoint,” says Paul, adding continued success will depend on all local beekeepers taking appropriate precautions. 

“It’s a great thing going on, and it’s only going to grow and do well if people don’t be in a rush to bring in equipment or bees from other places,” he says. 

You’re Invited
The Dinns aren’t keeping their buzzing business to themselves. They’re opening their land as a wildflower reserve and hosting Honeybee Hikes, like the one I took. The small-group hikes occur three times weekly to avoid stressing the bees. “Everything we do is to be in the best interest of the bees, because the last thing we want to do is lose them,” says Paul. 

They also started an adopt-a-hive program, where people pay a monthly fee to get experience managing a hive. It’s a way for people to find out if the hobby is right for them.

It was definitely the right move for Paul. “To me, it’s the best thing I ever did. I love it. I mean, it’s just a way of life. It’s so relaxing. We’ll go down and listen to the bees, hear them and watch them going back and forth with pollen,” says Paul, adding the humming of the bees and the whiff of honey can be downright therapeutic. 

“We really are lucky that this happened at this time,” says Paul. “Things came together for us.” - By Elizabeth Whitten