The wood-fired stove has been running for hours at this point. The room is almost ready. The sauna. The show. The reason I was there. The reason we all were there – the Prairie Pride apiary.
Manitoba beekeeper Gary Bergman of Prairie Pride Honey wants, perhaps foolishly, to believe good husbandry is the answer to all that plagues his industry. He’s a self-confessed optimist.
“I want all my optimism to get converted to happy wrinkles around my eyes; to do my good work, enjoy the beauty of the bees, and live a life that’s worth living, with the harmony of the hive singing through me.”
The trudge is short, a couple hundred metres along a path only Gary can see. Except this time, the way is traced by snowmobile tracks. But where we end up, few machines have gone. It’s an outdoor sauna, nestled in the bush. Gary built it. The antechamber looks like a bachelor pad: red plastic cups, a second-hand, Victorian-style couch, a coffee table, a few chairs and a chest or two. A battery-operated radio is broadcasting Carol Off and the solar-powered lights make the room glow. There’s other bachelor-style debris kicking around. It’s comfortable, familiar.
Gary is poised to take over the family apiary, an interesting profession, to be sure. Bee farmers are, likely without exception, interesting people. Gary fits the bill. And so do his family. Perhaps it’s because bees lead an interesting, complex, noble, hard-working existence that the Bergmans, too, are unique. Bees are organized to a collective purpose most humans are grateful for: the honey. And the important work they do pollinating the blooming world.
Prairie Pride Honey stands as a beacon of optimism in an industry brought to its knees by conditions that have scientists scratching their heads; while food prices rise, beekeepers reel, and a small apiary out of southern Manitoba holds to a positive outlook and good husbandry.
The New York Times reports that this year’s honeybee loss due to colony collapse disorder (CCD) has been the worst in the last few decades. The malady knocked out 40 to 50 percent of the bee population required to pollinate the country’s fruits and vegetables. And, “a conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005.”
The updated death reports will have to wait for spring when beekeepers begin opening their hives, but Jeff Pettis, the research leader at a U.S. bee laboratory, told The New York Times that he anticipates this year to be the worst one ever.
Some suspicions point to pesticides engineered into the flowering plants themselves as the main cause for CCD, but, there is a lack of conclusive evidence, and the pesticide industry has denied such rumours with fervour.
In a report published in Canadian Honey Council magazine, the authors reference the absence of the disorder in Canada, and attribute it, in part, to a difference in practices.
“Beekeeping seems to be a gentler practice than in the USA, especially when it comes to the major commercial operations there. Canadian beekeepers, by and large, seem to use fewer chemical and antibiotic control agents against pests and diseases than do their U.S. counter parts, and those that are used are applied more conservatively.”
CCD, at least its southern iteration, has not yet appeared to Canadian beekeepers, but since their debut in Florida in the mid-‘80s, the varroa mite is continuing to change the beekeeping industry.
Prairie Pride would prefer an organic solution to the devastating effects mites have on a bee – which, Gary says, is the equivalent of a human being dealing with a bug bite the size of a dinner plate that doesn’t heal – but often harsher chemicals work with the needed expediency.
“We’re still trying to figure this out. Everyone is. It’s the new beekeeping.”
Prairie Pride Honey began in 1978. Art Bergman is the first-generation apiarist who took what started as a hobbyist’s love of bees and a meager 10 hives to the now 640-hive operation. The business has grown at a good pace. And their product will keep you coming back for more. The various honeys the Bergmans produce are tasty.
But the Bergmans and Prairie Pride is a different story; one where the business profile shares a front seat with the characters involved. Money is king, generally. But Prairie Pride may have a different compass.
Session one is, in many respects, the hardest. Sweat is hard to break for the first time. The heat is almost unbearable. The 30- or 40-square-foot room is not large. And the stove that is heating it is. I only last about eight minutes, which I say is due to the flu I was battling. Gary and Jay last about five more. Then we all, in our trunks or gitch, stand outside in the winter evening to cool off in. -25C does this quickly. And it feels amazing. Like the onset of true catharsis.
Gary’s father, Art, the Reeve of the local R.M., is a great pontificator. His mom, Lois, is no exception to the Bergman intrigue. The main course served that evening was elk. Art and Gary knew who shot the animal, for what reasons, and to whose freezers the animal was dispersed.
“Bees are noble,” Art said. “The bees in the shed right now will raise the newborn workers for when the weather turns and then they will die off. The creator sure has gifted them with a sense of purpose larger than themselves.”
Those who know Gary have a smile on their faces at this point. Gary, 32, a devout CBC listener, lives on the family apiary, located a few miles north of Steinbach, Man. He received a degree in English Literature and has backpacked South America for the last eight winters. Gary goes to church on a regular basis. He sings in the choir, a stolid commitment to the richness of ancient hymns and the love of classical music he shares with his family.
Gary is a poet, a renaissance man in the bee-farming world. He has written a prolific amount. He recites long, epic poems from memory and will explain bee society to anyone interested. “Picture this: early July, and the prairie is a mosaic of fields, some wheat, some beans, and some the yellow canola flower,” he begins. “The field is buzzing with bees, and has a pungent smell, the smell of nectar. A worker bee swings into one of the groups of flowers, sticks its long tongue into the open petals of the blooming plant and sucks in some of its nectar. The bee, its honey stomach full, returns to its hive, one of 28 along the edge of the bright yellow field at an old farm yard.”
The characters involved in pollinating the world and bringing honey to the table:
In the queen’s two- to five-year life, she will lay up 1,500 eggs per day in wax cells made by the workers. She will and can feed herself, but worker bees can also offer her sustenance by regurgitating a special salivary gland secretion called royal jelly onto their proboscis (an appendage similar to a tongue), which they rub against the queen, whose body will absorb the offering.
Workers will generally survive the winter, living from four to six months, but, come the summer work season, their life expectancy plummets to a paltry six weeks. They work themselves to death, spending most of their life flying great distances. Of a summer hive of about 60,000 to 80,000 bees, most are workers, and all have tasks. A worker bee will work up the hive ladder, starting with housekeeper, moving to caring for the infirm, graduating to hive construction and then construction worker, grocer, undertaker, guard. And, for a worker’s final days, roughly 20 days after birth, she will forage for nectar and pollen.
The worker bee’s barbed stinger allows her to sting once, but at the cost of her life.
The duties of the drone are to wait, ready to mate with a virgin queen. There are only about 300 – 3,000 drones in a healthy, summer hive. And, like the worker’s sting, the male will mate for the one time, an act that will take his life due to a barbed sex organ. They don’t, however, have stingers.
The worker deposits the nectar mixed with a stomach enzyme into a cell located on a hanging frame inside the hive, and communicates through its pheromones that the queen is good, healthy, and the hive is in harmony.
The celled nectar is unripe honey at this point. The worker repeats the process until the hexagon is full. The heat from the hive dries the cell, and the bees, knowing when its ready, will seal the cell with a wax cap.
“When I roll onto the yard in my older, flat-bed truck with a mind to take the honey, the smoker comes out and gets fired up, billowing clouds of white smoke, a process that calms the bees by stirring an evolutionary response to fill their stomachs with enough resources, food, to relocate, in case the fire they believe is coming destroys their home.”
Bee-hive boxes, referred to as supers, above, set in pyramid formations near the crop the farmer is hoping to get honey from. A yard of 28 hives, or colonies, can fill 90 plus supers, and a single super can weigh up to 80lbs.
When harvesting, all supers associated with a singular hive are laid on their backs, prompting the bees to leave the honey-filled frames inside the boxes, which are loaded onto a truck and replaced with empty ones. The bottom super, often where the queen resides, stays behind.
The boxes full of honey are put in a warming room, where the heat ensures the honey will flow with ease from the cells and will not granulate.
Gary pries each of the nine hanging frames from the super, scraping the excess wax away in process. A machine with two heated blades called the “uncapper” shaves off each cell’s wax seal. Once done, or enough cells have been opened, the frames are spun in a stainless-steel drum that uses centrifugal force to drain them into the honey sump, and then barrels.
The sealed Prairie Pride barrels of honey are then sent to Beemaid Honey, a Manitoba honey co-op, where it is filtered, blended, packed, and shipped to market.
Smaller market selling for Prairie Pride is a thing of the past, having now to rely on larger marketing machines like Beemaid and the occasional kiosk at farmers’ markets. It is a shift lamented by Gary and many others who enjoy the farm’s honey.
“Prairie Pride used to market much of our own honey in local towns supermarkets, but as the towns grew, the supermarkets changed and the national chains came in. We were pushed out of the market because we were just not large enough to compete at that level.”
Session two is hotter. Gary spills water with eucalyptus oils on the stove and fans hot, humid air around the room. This one is bearable. The body is still sweating from session one. Again, I am the first to leave, after about 10 minutes, this time. Gary and Jay join me outside. It’s dark now.
Gary stokes the fire. The stove is perfectly oriented to heat the lounge area, somewhat, but throws most of its heat into the sauna. The heat must rise significantly for session three.
Honeybees will take nectar from any source that gives it, Gary says, and any wild flower or volunteer crop will be as good for them as the other. Most large-scale bee farms set up near canola fields, which ensures a golden honey. Buckwheat honey, in contrast, is dark, pungent honey, coffee-like. Clover honey is water white and very light tasting. Almond and other flowering fruit fields foreign to the southern Manitoban climate zone also yield unique flavours, and these fields, specifically, have close ties to the CCD endemic plaguing U.S. apiaries.
Alfalfa makes for a floral honey, though bees often steer clear of such fields as any bee landing on the flower will get “a jack-in-the-box style, pollen-laden punch,” Gary said. “The bees do not appreciate this, and the more experienced ones have learned to sip from the side and miss the punch.”
Isolating exactly which type of honey you end up with is difficult for any beekeeper. Gary usually judges by colour and taste, marking the barrels that have a particularly fine flavour.
Session three is the final go. It is the session where all Jay, Gary and I can say to each other is: “Oh, man, this is hot.” Indeed, it was.
“Optimism is a good place to leave off. The farmers hope. That what gets planted will grow and bear fruit. That is what I want for Prairie Pride.”
Indeed, Prairie Pride will soldier on, looking for organic solutions to problems others are using chemicals to fix. And doing so in a way unique to Prairie Pride Honey out of southern Manitoba. The future is uncertain, Gary will quickly admit, but it is bright because it always is at the Bergman’s house.
[box title=”Harvest poem 2012” color=”#333333″]By Gary Bergman
The heat swells in summer
Days pregnant with watery mirages
Birth no rain and seed beads of rolling sweat
And bees on the wing swing from flower to flower
Like paper birds attached to a string
Above the gravel roads dusty barrages
Flying bees hum a gentle murmur
That combines in the hive to a graceful song
Of honey stored by the working throng
And the sweetness of the harvest full
Weighs heavy in every tired muscle
But the sweeter taste of stolen treasure
With its supple golden glimmer
Enlivens eyes and curls lips with pleasure and sting and sweat give way to rest after a beautiful bounteous summers harvest.[/box]
Toban Dyck is a guy. Follow him @tobandyck.
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