Flickr /<a href= "http://www.flickr.com/photos/23905174@N00/2469081539/" target="_blank">Don Hankins</a>
Credit: Flickr /Don Hankins

Flickr /Don Hankins

A good beekeeper is part biologist, part management expert and part insect-whisperer

Raising bees is a pretty sweet deal, mostly because calling yourself a beekeeper is a fun icebreaker at parties

But sustaining the population of nature’s greatest pollinators and getting an unlimited honey supply are nice perks, too, benefitting both your pantry and humanity.

bcl-blogs-cyoa-bee-3a_2.jpg
Honeybee Centre is open to the public year
round for classes, tours, and shopping.

I’d been working at the Honeybee Centre for a few months when I took its Basic Beekeeping course, but my fellow scholars were from all walks of non-bee-related life.

There were bespectacled father-son suburbanites looking for a hobby, bohemian eco-enthusiasts commuting to the class from their 500-square-foot West End apartments, retirees looking for a way to make a little money at the farmers’ market with their free time.

Anyone can manage 80,000 honeybees with a little know-how: HBC’s three-day classes are a good place to start.

Three Days to Beekeeping

On my first day of class, 24 bright-eyed, bushy-tailed students are tucked into a classroom behind Honeybee Centre’s gift shop. The room is usually used for school tours, so cheery posters with poems about pollination are strung up everywhere, and the countertops are covered with supplies for making antenna headbands. There will be no poetry or crafts for us, though, just a thick photocopied textbook and a rapidly approaching final exam. In three days, we’ll be ready to manage up to 50 hives. No pressure, just millions of bees’ lives in our hands.

A good beekeeper, it turns out, is part biologist, part management expert and part insect-whisperer. Our teacher for this course is Honeybee Centre’s president, John Gibeau. He’s worked with hives his whole life, and has a Bee Master certificate (a real thing from SFU!), so he’s certainly the right person for the job. He answers questions patiently, a grin firmly in place between his trademark mustache.

I am not a scientist in any sense of the word. As a communications major, my educational focus was mostly Facebook-related. So it’s a strange new world for me as we start with an introduction to the hive, meeting the queen, drones and worker bees and getting a rather intimate look at their physiology.

We look at disgusting, disgusting slides of diseased hives (staring at fungally infected larvae is not a great post-breakfast activity). We get tips for keeping our bees warm during the winter. Our brains get very, very full.

Hands-on Beekeeping at the Honeybee Centre

bcl-blogs-cyoa-bee-3b.jpg
Showing off my full beekeeper regalia
and unorthodox smoker technique.

The third day, though, we get a break from the classroom. It’s field day, and we get to actually play with the bees for the first time. Honeybee Centre has about 10 of their thousands of hives out in the backyard for us to explore. I suit up. It’s go time.

Through our mesh beekeeper hoods, Gibeau shows us the trick to lighting a smoker, a canister with bellows and a spout used to spray smoke gently into the hive to distract the bees and keep them calm. I have a hard time lighting the burlap inside, and wind up just blowing my hive with cold air, which they do not appreciate.

But even the meanest worker bee can’t get at me, bundled up in my coveralls and thick goatskin gloves. As I get bolder during my beekeeping career and dive barehanded and barefaced into the honey supers, I’ll certainly be stung, but in these beautiful first forays into the hive, I play it safe and come away unscathed.

Inside the hive, I look for the queen bee. She’s twice as long as the others, and moves around the honeycomb circled by an entourage. It’s a game of Where’s Waldo: she’s one in 80,000.

It takes 20 minutes, pulling out pieces of the hive one by one and checking each side slowly and carefully, but she turns up right in the middle. It’s a much greater accomplishment than passing the final exam later on that afternoon.

The certificate proclaiming my success (printed, inexplicably, on stationary with a picture of a man climbing a mountain) is less meaningful than knowing that I can actually go into a hive and know what’s going on. I still framed it, obviously. I want my bees to know who’s boss.

The next Basic Beekeeping course starts in February, and Advanced Courses and year-long Practicums are available, too. Honeybee Centre is located at 7480 176 Street, Surrey. Give them a call at 604-575-2337 or check the Honeybee Centre website for dates and details.

Stacey McLachlan is a freelance writer with a totally useful publishing degree. She is a certified beekeeper, an amateur pie enthusiast, and the kind of person who spends a disproportionate amount of time looking at pictures of pigs on the Internet. If you’re feeling up to it, find her work in Vancouver, Western Living, BeatRoute, and Award.