As May comes to a close, the days are growing longer and the flowers in Cloverdale are blooming in the early summer weather—just in time for the Day of the Honeybee on Monday, May 29, and for a dozen local beekeepers-in-training to start their five-month practicums.
Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s commercial beekeeping course is now in its second year. According to instructor John Gibeau, there’s never been a better time to get into the industry.
“There’s a shortage of beekeepers in British Columbia,” he said. “There’s really a demand. B.C. could easily absorb 200 commercial beekeepers right now.”
That’s a pretty high number, considering there are only four or five beekeepers who make a living solely off of the industry in B.C. – and Gibeau, who owns the Honeybee Centre in Cloverdale, is one of them. But, as Gibeau explains it, B.C. needs more beekeepers.
Alberta has more than 400 beekeepers making a living of it, said Gibeau, and some of their operations have up to 20,000 beehives. The biggest in B.C. is 6,500 hives and it took two generations to get there.
But the beekeeping industry is changing. Sixty years ago, the business of pollination didn’t exist, according to Gibeau, but now it’s the beekeeper’s main business.
For blueberry pollination alone, B.C. imports about 20,000 beehives from Alberta – that’s 800 million bees – every year.
“When my dad was a beekeeper, you kept bees if you wanted honey,” he said. “Now, honey is the by-product and pollination is the main source of value for our bees.”
Gibeau is a beekeeper with more than 50 years of experience. His class at KPU teaches everything from beehive care and colony management to honeybee business planning, management and growth.
After graduating the year-long program, students receive three years of mentorship with the goal of becoming self-reliant in five years.
“Ideally, we hope to produce 12 new beekeepers a year, each who becomes a family owned self-sufficient business with a minimum of 300 beehives,” said Gibeau.
Busy as a beekeeper
Alex Schellenberg first became interested in beekeeping when his mother got a hive for their family farm but was too nervous to go near it.
“She was afraid of being stung, so I took it over,” he said. “I read Beekeeping for Dummies. I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but right away I appreciated it.”
Schellenberg explained the careful dance of smoking a hive before tending to it, and the co-operative nature of the hive’s response. “It’s like a cat putting its ears back,” he said. “They’re all individuals, but they function as a whole. I thought, ‘This is awesome, I need to get into this.’”
He always thought he’d keep bees as a hobby, but “to be honest, this wasn’t even on my radar for a career path,” said Schellenberg.
When Wagner Hills Farm Society asked him to take care of their hives and offered to send him to KPU for the program, Schellenberg agreed.
He’s in practicum right now, and is actually working three beekeeping jobs. He manages the hives at Wagner Hills Farm Society, teaches beekeeping skills to at-risk youth at the Funny Farm and works with Jane’s Honey Bees, a Fraser Valley beekeeping operation. He also does the occasional farmer’s market on the weekend.
“So, pretty busy,” he said, laughing.
In the fall, Schellenberg and his classmates will return to KPU to finish their classes, this time focusing more on the business aspect of beekeeping. From there, he’ll take over the hives at Wagner Hills Farms Society and begin to work towards having his own operation within the next five years.
“I’ll be overseeing the colonies at the farm and training the guys there,” said Shellenberg.
“It’s going to feel good to pass along that knowledge and training in beekeeping that I’ve learned from John.”