The zen of beekeeping
Ian Stewart/Yukon News
The bee whacked me in the face.
Then stung me on the eye, the blighter.
And I wasn’t even the one who made it mad.
Several metres away, Ying Allen bends over a three-story, lime-green hive, each level just a little larger than a file box.
She is surrounded by bees.
A white cotton suit with a mesh face-cover protects her.
Allen is compressing her 20 hives by removing the top stories, readying the bees for winter.
Several land on her blue, rubber gloves.
Using a tiny crowbar, she gently pries loose a honey frame, or “super,” from the top layer.
“The bees make this glue from tree sap, called propolis, and use it to fuse the supers in place,” says Allen as she slowly pulls one out.
Teeming with bees, the honeycomb is barely visible.
“See these bigger ones — these are the drones,” she says, gently sweeping her finger through the crawling throng of bodies.
“The smaller worker bees will chase them out of the hive before winter, because there isn’t enough food for all of them.”
The drones just eat and mate with the queen, says Allen, as she thwacks the frame, plunging the bees into the congested hive below.
It’s a cool day, and the bees are lethargic.
“It’d be better if it was sunny,” says Allen, moving to the next three-storey hive.
“You have to make sure the bees don’t get too cold when you open the hives.”
It’s her fifth year with bees and Allen, who sells fireweed honey from her Little Fox Lake home, keeps a journal.
The water-worn pages are covered in brown blotches — “bee poo,” she says with a laugh.
After referring to her notes, Allen moves on to hive six. “Last time, I couldn’t find any eggs in this hive,” she says.
And because the queen bee is the only one that lays eggs, as many as 15,000 a day, this probably means there’s no queen.
The queen is twice the size of worker bees and a hive must have a queen to successfully survive the winter, says Allen.
“She sustains the whole colony, and without her, the bees have no motivation because they know the colony’s going to die.”
Last time she opened this hive, Allen put in a frame of fresh eggs from another hive.
“When a queen is gone, the workers will usually choose an egg and make another queen,” she said.
To turn an ordinary egg into a queen, nurse bees feed the tiny larva royal jelly — a food secreted though saliva glands on the tops of their heads.
Searching the frames, Allen doesn’t find any new eggs, nor does she see a queen cell — the large egg chamber worker bees build to raise a queen.
“A beekeeper always has to make decisions,” she says sounding disappointed.
“Either I have to get a queen, or combine this hive with another that has a queen.”
If Allen orders a queen, it will be traveling all the way from Hawaii.
“That’s the only place they raise disease-free bees,” she says.
The bees are calm though, she adds.
And if they’re calm, this usually means there’s a queen.
“Maybe she’s in the bottom layer,” she says, again hopeful.
“I’ll check there next time.”
At another hive, Allen heaves the whole top layer off and sets it beside the bottom boxes.
The bees will leave this open layer and move into the remaining hive, she says.
Several minutes later, the ground is a seething swarm of activity as the cold, dislocated bees parade toward the hive.
“They’re so cute,” says Allen, over the rising hum of wings.
“They’re like little kids, ‘Let me in — Let me in.’”
But it’s not that easy.
There are some bees standing guard at the door, says Allen.
And to get in, the bees have to do a special dance to prove they’re from this hive, because other bees sometimes try to rob the food supply.
Allen suddenly plucks a bee from her wrist.
“It stung me,” she says.
“But the stinger can’t stick in through these gloves.”
Allen stands over the hive.
“Smell that?” she asks.
“It smells like flowers — that’s the sign of a healthy hive.”
If the hive’s not healthy, it’s supposed to smell like rotten bananas, she adds.
Pulling out a frame, Allen points to areas where the honeycomb is dark — filled with pollen, and areas where it is lighter and full of honey.
She also points to an area where tiny white eggs are nestled into the honeycomb cavities.
The bees eat the pollen and honey all winter. So, to make up for the honey she’s harvested, Allen is starting to feed her bees a sweet mixture that’s two-parts sugar to one-part water.
Back at her shop, after sweeping some stragglers from her bee suit, Allen shows off her honey.
It’s colourless and as clear as glass.
A pollen specialist, who stopped by, took some back to the states and analyzed it, she says.
“He wrote me and told me it was over 90 per cent fireweed.”
Last year the fireweed got a disease and didn’t bloom, says Allen.
This year the crop was better, but the late spring, slowed things down.
“And the queen won’t even start laying till the pollen and honey is built up,” she says.
Allen taught herself about bees.
“I bought them from some friends who were moving,” she says.
“They were supposed to show me how to keep them, but then they just left.”
Beekeeping is really complicated, she says.
And it’s a lot of work.
Allen’s first summer, her bees swarmed twice.
This happens when the hive decides to hatch another queen. If the queen cell isn’t destroyed, then, when the second queen hatches, half the bees will leave with the new queen to find another home.
“We didn’t know you had to look for these swarm cells, and destroy them,” says Allen.
“It’s pretty amazing when suddenly thousands and thousands of bees start flying out of the hive.
“We had to go and capture the swarm and move it to a new hive.
“But they swarmed to the top of a tree — so, we had to cut the tree down to get them.”
In November, Allen insulates the hives. And the bees generate their own heat, she says.
The odd bee is still buzzing around the shop.
“They smell the honey,” says Allen.
After taking the frames from the hives, Allen scraps the wax caps off each comb full of honey.
The frames are then placed in a huge stainless steel vat that spins.
“The centrifugal force draws the honey out,” says Allen.
Then it’s strained and left to sit for a few days, to let the air bubbles escape before being bottled.
Lots of beekeepers stop by the shop, says Allen.
“And to make a living at it, they say you need at least 50 hives. But some have thousands of hives.
“And they have big machines to harvest the honey and don’t care about disease or swarms or anything.”
But for Allen, it’s more personal.
“It’s like gardening; it’s healing and therapeutic both mentally and physically,” she says.
Besides honey, Allen sells morel mushrooms and various jellies, including spruce tip and soap berry.
Her daughter collects and sells antlers and Allen’s husband sells arctic char, creates rock-climbing holds from burls and hosts local bouldering festivals.
The shop, called Wild Things Harvest, is 78 kilometres from Whitehorse on the North Klondike Highway. Allen also sells her products at various Whitehorse gift shops.