Beekeeping at FortWhyte Alive

Apiculture is a fancy word for beekeeping. Which is a fancy thing itself, and is exactly what keeps Derek Micholson beesy. A researcher and Program Lead of the Knowledge & Research Transfer Program (an extension arm of the Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association), Derek takes care of five honey bee hives at FortWhyte.

The bees at FortWhyte have it pretty easy. While they can fly as far away as five miles in search of food, this population has plenty to forage on. In the springtime, there is an abundance of willow and poplar trees. In the summer, they feed on dandelion, clover, trefoil, vetch, goldenrod, thistle, alfalfa, canola, sunflower, and many other wildflowers in bloom, including those in a pollinator garden nearby.

But beekeeping is not all flowers – it’s a physically demanding activity, where long days are spent working in the hives during hot summer days, often in a full bee suit. It can be a very sweaty job, describes Derek, not to mention the potential of getting stung. Controlling diseases and pests is, perhaps, the less glamorous side of beekeeping. It requires a lot of vigilance, especially managing the parasitic mite Varroa destructor, that sadly, has been decimating bee populations around the world.

Bees are important pollinators, promoting growth and quality of vegetation, which in turn, serves as source of food and shelter to a multitude of species, thus connecting various ecosystems. Consistent with FortWhyte’s educational and conservation efforts, honey bees here provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about the important role that all bees play in the various ecosystems they live in!

Bee colonies have complex, but fascinating organizational structures. Each of the FortWhyte hives counts around 40,000-60,000 individuals that belong to Apis mellifera species, also known as the Western or European honey bee. Their numbers vary with seasons, peaking in the summer and decreasing as the colony prepares for winter.

The hives consist of several boxes, with the bottom one called “brood chamber”. This is where the Queen resides and lays eggs. The boxes stacked on top of it are known as “honey supers” and serve to store honey. A “queen excluder” is a metal grate separating the brood chamber and honey supers, that allows worker bees to pass through to feed the Queen, who is larger than all other bees. The Queen is, of course, the head of the colony, and has a number of important functions, such as the egg laying and producing pheromones (chemicals) that control many functions of the hive.

The rest of the bees are called workers and drones, female and male respectively. The drones’ task is a simple one – they mate with the Queen and die after the job is done. Until then, they spend their time eating honey, that is fed to them by the workers. The workers, on the other hand, have lots of responsibilities in the hive and progress through various tasks during their lifetime. Young worker bees start off their “career” inside the colony by cleaning, as well as feeding the Queen and the developing brood (larvae), and eventually move on to tasks closer to the entrance, such as guarding the hive. Eventually, they advance to foraging for pollen and nectar, which ultimately turn into honey.

Annual honey production is around 160-170lbs per hive. The honey is extracted once a year, and is a blend of all nectar collected during the spring and summer. In different habitats there are different sources of nectar, which gives unique flavours to honey from every location. The honey is then sold at the FortWhyte Farms Market on Tuesdays, from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. Come visit – every jar is guaranteed to contain a lifetime story of a bee!

By: Anna Aráoz