What’s the buzz about beekeeping?

Bees kept by Dr. Byers, resting on top of a honey comb. (Submitted: ATTTA 2020)

A beekeeping course held at the University of New Brunswick on Nov. 5 marks a growing interest in the craft in New Brunswick.

Beekeeper Andrew Byers taught the course to a capped set of 25 students. 

“We taste honey, we build hives,” said Byers. “It’s a time to relax and talk with a bunch of like-minded people about a common interest.” 

He emphasized the course was devoid of bees and protective gear and that the goal was not to train beekeepers, but instead to guide those who are contemplating beekeeping to an informed decision.

“It’s fun for me,” said Byers. “[Beekeeping] is an important decision. If I can help people make that decision, that ticks the box for me.”

Beekeeping hobbyists are on the rise. Byers said the majority of beekeepers in New Brunswick are hobbyists who maintain a couple of colonies to enhance their backyard gardens, develop organic food or simply explore their fascination with bees. 

“Almost anyone can get a hive, get some honeybees and start providing food and honey for their community,” said Byers. 

Byers said the demand for hives in New Brunswick has skyrocketed. He said there are around 15,000 hives in the province and that demand for hives could increase to 80,000 in a mere decade, opening up huge career opportunities for beekeeping. 

According to Byers, beekeeping is inexpensive, so it is the easiest way to enter the agricultural industry. 

“There’s a general heightened awareness of bees, and that spotlight has been placed on honeybees,” said Byers. “We’re just moving in that direction generally as a society.”

For Byers, spending time with honeybees is a tranquil and enjoyable experience. 

He reminisces on the warm, quiet days when he could visit the apiary and simply “enjoy the bees,” reflecting on their expressive buzzing. 

“The bees themselves communicate back to you,” said Byers, explaining that the tone of the buzzing shifts as the bees communicate. “Once you get to the point where you understand that, [handling them] is not a one-way process.” 

Byers explained that a single bee is unimpressive, but as a colony, it is a “super organism” that acts as one and makes “amazing decisions.” 

“If you’re in a rush and you’re just trying to get a job done … and you aren’t careful and you’re absent minded, the bees will very quickly let you know. They will sting you and it’s not their fault. It’s because you’re being careless and inattentive,” said Byers.

“When you go [into the apiary], you need to leave everything else behind and just enjoy it.”

Byers’ interest in beekeeping was sparked while he was researching the impacts of environmental contaminants on mammal populations. 

He noticed the decline in honeybee populations mimicked the trend observed in other species and understood bees were also affected by environmental contaminants. He began looking into honeybees further, embarking on beekeeping courses offered by the local bee club.

“I readily took up that opportunity and started down the road of beekeeping and never looked back,” he said.

Byers described beekeeping as a seasonal endeavour, rich with learning and community. He said the beekeeping craft is an “endless, lifelong learning process.” 

During the fall, beekeepers ensure that their honeybees are healthy and well-fed. Winter sees the honeybees put to bed. Beekeeping workshops, meetings and equipment preparations surge. In the spring, beekeeping activities span blueberry pollination, honey harvest or crafting other beautiful goods. Summer begins with a burst of dandelions — the first strong forage crop for honeybees. 

“We think about the seasons,” said Byers, adding that a new challenge for beekeepers has been to adapt to the Earth’s warming climates, which harm honeybees, according to experts at Oregan State University

Regional beekeeper clubs offer support and opportunities for beekeepers, and the New Brunswick Beekeeper’s Association serves as the mouthpiece for beekeepers during communications with the government. 

“There’s a familiarity with beekeeping [in New Brunswick],” said Byers. “New Brunswick has a long tradition of beekeeping.”