Naomi - “ Dad, how much do you know about bees?”
Don - “not much!”
I learned to keep bees in a very different way than most, through hands-on experience and very little research. My dad always impressed upon me the importance of continuing to read and learn about bees throughout my life as there is so much to learn. There is constantly new information being discovered about the complex and fascinating world of honeybees and it feels almost impossible to keep up.
Throughout my Dad’s beekeeping career he was constantly approached by new beekeepers seeking tips and tricks on how to best manage their new hives. But the one thing he would constantly say is ‘ start by reading a book about it.’
Beekeeping In Western Canada has been the reference bible for my beekeeping education. Published by the Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development Information services, the book acknowledges in the foreword that it should be used as supplemental material to more in-depth reference books ( a few of which are listed below), however for beginner beekeepers, especially in Canada, I feel like this book provides an excellent starting point for aspiring beekeepers.
- Naomi Mark
My “Go-To“ Book: https://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex38
While working on How To Bee from 2015 – 2019 I witnessed incredible growth in the Yukon beekeeping community, mostly through observing the development of a Yukon created Facebook group Beekeeping North of 60 whose founding members have also created an incredible resource for Northern beekeepers in the form of a companion website, for an amazing variety of information on beekeeping in the North. The website is an awesome new resource for beekeepers in the North. https://www.northof60beekeeping.com/
Other excellent reference material:
ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. 1974. Ed. A.L Root Co., Medina, Ohio.
The Hive and The Honey Bee. 1975. Ed. Dadant and Sons, Hamilton Illinois
Honey 1975. Ed. Eva Crane. William Heinemann Ltd., London
Honeybee Pests, Predators and Diseases. 1978. Ed. Roger A. Morse. Cornell University Press. Ithica, N.Y.
What do you need to get started?
The thing about beekeeping is that everyone does it slightly differently. You can get very technical very quickly but it is also possible to keep and manage bees fairly simply depending on your approach.
Honeybees need the basics: shelter, food and water.
Beekeepers need to be able to manage these things, especially when, like in the North, honeybees are 100% dependent on their keepers for survival.
Here is your basic list of equipment for starting your beehive (& apiary)
- 2 Supers or hive boxes to be used as the main chambers for the honeybees to live in and produce their young (brood)
- 20 frames with foundation to fill these two chambers (10 per chamber)
- 1 bottom board
- 1 top board
- 1 entrance reducer
- 1 lid
- Feeding containers (you can make your own or buy all sorts)
- watering containers
Tools and Special Equipment:
- Protective clothing*
- 1 Hive tool
- 1 Smoker with smoker fuel
- 1 bee brush
From here you need a whole set of other tools and equipment to begin producing honey but we’ll cover that in our Honey Production Tools post at a later date.
*For a small hobby apiary you can sometimes get away with very little protective equipment and work with the bees only when the weather is best and the bees are flying. However, this isn't always recommended because as soon as you add more hives to your apiary there is more work to be done and it can be impractical to wait for the weather. The absolute basics for protective equipment are a veil and gloves which would be worn with long pants and sleeves made from thicker materials. Although it isn’t always the most comfortable, a full bee suit is recommended.
The Yukon’s environment is challenging for agriculture. Although we have long summer days, the season itself is quite short and often dry. Beekeepers need to be strategic about where they position their apiaries as summer rainfall (or lack thereof) can have a huge impact on whether or not flowers produce nectar at all. Placing apiaries near water or irrigated crops becomes a critical step towards ensuring bees are able to produce enough honey to sustain themselves for the summer and potentially enough for the beekeeper to harvest.
Longer winters mean that the honeybees require special attention in the fall for feeding and medicating to ensure that they will have enough supplies to get them through the season. In the Yukon temperatures in winter normally hover around -15°C but can drop to -40°C and colder so beehives also need to be wrapped with additional insulation to protect them from the cold.
The Furry Risk Factors
In addition to the unique climate, there are other threats to honeybees that come in the form of pests. Other insects such as wasps and ants pose a threat to honeybees as they can infest a hive and detract from its productivity if not destroy it. However, northern beekeepers face a few more unique adversaries such as bears and wolverines. Contrary to what one might assume from cultural references, it’s not the honey that attracts these large predators to the apiary but the protein-rich brood and larva. Beekeepers in the North should take extra precautions to protect their apiaries by surrounding them with electric fencing, wall and alarms.
The challenge of beekeeping in the North is that the most sustainable large crop for honey does not lay within agriculture but in the natural cycles of the boreal forest. Beyond a number of berry farms and green manure crops, there are not many large flowering crops in the Yukon. Commercial beekeepers who have been most successful are those who focus on fireweed fields that grow en masse for several years following a forest fire. For those beekeepers who decide to pursue fireweed crops, this means caring for an apiary in a remote location where you’re more likely to encounter bears or other predators. This style of remote beekeeping in combination with our long winters makes beekeeping in the Yukon a unique but not unrewarding challenge.