Special Topics in Horticulture: Apiculture

Student blog post by Corinne Barr & Jeremy Stewart

This week, the landscape horticulture students at PHC had the opportunity to speak with Gordon MacKay about his many years working in apiculture on Vancouver Island. Gordon is a member of the Cowichan Beekeepers Society, a horticulturist and graduate of the BC Bees Master Certification. He has been beekeeping on Vancouver Island for the past 20 years. Although, if you ask him, he will say he is “just a beginner.” 

Apiculture, also known as beekeeping, is the planning and maintenance of one or more bee colonies. It is a practice that dates back centuries and is most commonly known for its honey production. However, bees produce more than just delicious honey! They are powerful pollinators and they produce beeswax, bee pollen, royal jelly, and propolis. Propolis is a sought after resource as it contains antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. It is used in a variety of pharmacological products and is also what the bees use to keep their hives free of bacteria.

There are many species of honeybees in B.C., including native and introduced species, though many are now hybrids as a result of cross-breeding between wild and colonized bees. They are referred to as “mutts” on Vancouver Island because there are not many purebred bees left. Although they are rare, you can still find purebred bees in parts of Ireland and Scotland. 

The life of a honey bee may not be very long, with the lifespan of a worker bee typically lasting only five to seven weeks, but they are capable of many great things during their short lives. While drone bees die after mating, they are a crucial part of the colony as they collect nectar for the hive. Worker bees can visit up to 5,000 flowers in a day, with roughly 400 bees collecting enough nectar to make a pound of honey every day. The queen has the longest lifespan of all, living up to five years in a healthy hive, and is capable of laying approximately 500 eggs a day during mating season. 

In a hive, there is one queen bee ruling the colony with a small portion of drone bees, while the rest are worker bees performing various roles, such as nurse bees who feed the young bees; guard bees who protect the hive from intruders; and incubator bees, which warm the hive on colder days by swarming the colony and vibrating, or cooling the hive down when it is too hot. They do this by fanning the air with their wings at the entrance of the hive. This fanning method is also used to help dry the nectar if there is a high moisture content to turn it into honey.

If you are interested in starting your own hive, be sure to check out your local municipality guidelines. Some municipalities have limits as low as four hives per property while more rural communities will have no restrictions and beekeepers may have up to 50 hives if they are very enthusiastic.  However, Gordon recommends a maximum of 20 hives on a property to limit the amount of stress placed on the land. If you are a beginner beekeeper or if you would like to have the wonder of a beehive on your property without all the work entailed, be sure to check for local mentorship programs and clubs working with homeowners and their hives.  

Starting your own beehive requires some prep work and a lot of patience. Building the hive is the most expensive part of starting your journey into apiculture, costing around $500-$700 plus the cost of purchasing your bees. Used equipment can be found online with a basic startup costing around $300-$400. 

Be sure to place your hive in a fully sunny spot to keep the hive warm and dry, as too much shade will prevent the hive from drying out properly after rain and may lead to the loss of your colony. The most common equipment used for building your hive is a series of wooden boxes, starting with a bottom board that acts as the lower entrance to the hive. The bottom board should be around three feet above the ground. A larger box called a “deep” is placed on top of the bottom board. A deep contains a set of wooden or plastic frames where the bees will lay their eggs and store nectar. The deep can hold up to 10 frames for the bees, but once your colony has enough to cover six frames, another deep should be added. 

Hives with a single deep can house around 20,000-30,000 bees while two-tiered hives may house up to 60,000 bees. Another box will be placed on top of the deep when the bees become active in producing honey in the spring and is called a honey super, which can come in a variety of sizes but are typically smaller than the deep. A super holds another set of 10 frames where the bees will store nectar to turn into honey. An inner cover that has a notch on the front of it to allow bees access from the top and an outer cover to protect the hive from weather and predators will be placed on top of the super during wintertime. Styrofoam can be added to the underside of the outer cover for insulation in the winter and the cover can also be propped open to allow for more air circulation when it is too hot in the summer. 

There is an assortment of extra features that can be added to the hive. These include, but are not limited to, an entrance reducer to make the guard bees job easier in defending the lower entrance; a robbing screen that goes in front of the hive and also makes the entrance smaller so predators cannot get in; as well as mouse guards, which are placed on the lower entrance of the hive in November to prevent mice from attempting to nest in the hive.

At this time, there are only a few options when purchasing your bees. Most often, they are shipped to the Island from New Zealand. It is more beneficial to buy bees locally.  Unfortunately, we do not have enough products in B.C. The few local apiaries are typically sold out in advance and their products are not usually available until later in spring, resulting in a later start to your hive. When ordering bees, they are commonly sold in packages that contain roughly two pounds of bees. These include one queen that is separated from the rest by a small cage for protection; a few drones to start the mating process; and the rest of the package will be worker bees taken from different hives at the apiary. Buying local bees may bring the best chance of success as they will already be adapted to the environment. Bees that come from foreign apiaries are designed for mass production and may tend to have higher mite counts. Please note, that there are places such as Tasmania where you can order bees that are certified mite free. However, it is important to be cautious when purchasing from sellers that advertise “mite-free bees” as it is nearly impossible to keep mites out of your hive. 

To ensure colony wellbeing, it is important to purchase treatments to help fight against pests and diseases. Some of the more common pests are yellow jacket wasps and Varroa mites. Wasps can be trapped away from the hive by the use of pheromone traps placed in a different section of the property. Mites are common in hives and damage can be limited if treated correctly. However, if left untreated, they can cause DMV (deformed wing virus) to the bees in the colony and may lead to colony collapse. One should perform regular checks for mites as they may override the colony and cause it to fail. Some common treatments include formic acid, oxalic acid, Thymol, Apicar, Apistan, and Hopguard II. Treatment for mites is typically done twice a year, once in autumn and again in the spring if necessary. It is recommended to alternate treatment types but if there is a method that is working well in your hive, it may be best to continue with that. 

For folks who are not quite looking to dabble with apiculture but still want to support our bee community, you can plant flowers that are good for our pollinators. These include hearty annuals, clover, thyme, heather, and Salix (willow) among many others. Alternatively, you can purchase a seed mix that includes a variety of flowering plants. There is currently a growing movement away from perfectly manicured lawns with no weeds or wild plants towards a more natural style of lawn with wildflowers. Some are even planting weeds like dandelions and clover, which provide early-season sources of pollen for bees.

If you are looking to start beekeeping, it is best to start learning from a local mentor because personal hands-on experience is the best way to see and learn about bees, their habits, and hives. Make sure to check out some of our local honey producers including Babe’s Honey Farm in Victoria, Country Bee Honey Farm in Saanichton, and Fredrich’s Honey Farm in Nanaimo. There are also a few local apiaries to purchase bees and beekeeping supplies like Jinglepot Apiary or Flying Dutchman Beekeeping Supplies, both in Nanaimo.

Additional resources:

Municipal Bylaws for Beekeeping within the CRD

Capital Region Beekeepers