In the summer of 2005 I decided to take my farm apprentices to visit Kurt Streckheisen, a beekeeper who was known to be ‘au naturel’, as one of our monthly farm tours. I knew nothing about beekeeping at the time and had no idea that it was going to intrigue me as much as it did that day. I asked Kurt if I could come back and work with him and the bees sometime. We have been working together with the bees ever since, graduating from teacher and student to ‘partners in crime.’

At that time, I was borrowing land to run my vegetable CSA from Bruce and Janet Duncan, long time COG members, in Almonte, ON. Now my husband and I own our own 100 acre mixed organic farm in Lanark, sold to us by COG’s own Ann Macey and her husband.  On our farm we have pastured pigs from farrow to finish, vegetables, hay, some layer hens, a tiny beef herd, and the honeybees…along with 60 acres of woods and swamp.

We keep an average of 9 hives on our farm. Kurt keeps another 2 hives at his place, in the woods. Within a 3 km radius and beyond, we are surrounded by hay fields, more forest, more swamp and riverside. We also have conventional GMO and non GMO soy/corn grown on neighbouring fields, though we are fairly confident that the bees do not gather from these fields due to the choice selection of everything else so close at hand.*

One of my favourite aspects of beekeeping is watching the bees work. Simply from watching them fly into the hive entrance, you can see what is going on.  If they are bringing in pollen, you know that there is brood (bee larva) inside, so you know the queen is working. You can also see what flowers they are gathering from by the colour of the pollen. The drone activity also tells you when the honey season is over. 

The working season for the bees starts on those early spring days when the sap is flowing. The scout bees start looking for crocuses and snowdrops…and tree sap. Dandelions are the first major crop of pollen and nectar that the bees can collect. Then there is a procession of flowers that provide nectar and pollen. The maple and cherry trees, the fruit trees, linden trees, followed by wild raspberries and dogwood flowers, to name a few.

There is then a lull before the start of the summer flowers. Midsummer the white clover, bladder campion, catmint, poison ivy, white aster, purple loosestrife, and motherwort are some of the major nectar sources around here. There are some flowers, such as red clover, alfalfa or basswood tree flowers, whose nectar is not available without the right amount of precipitation, and in the case of basswood, the right amount of heat. When you see the bees cleaning the sticky nectar that they collect from milkweed flowers from each other, you know the summer season is soon coming to a close as there are not many summer nectar sources left. 

In the fall, the bees predominantly work the goldenrod flowers and purple asters. We try to have some buckwheat planted for the bees and let our rows of basil and mustards go to flower. We also have lots of sunflowers, zinnias, mignonette, plus other annual flowers for them to harvest from in the late season. The bees work the vegetable flowers, of course, but I consider this more of a service to us than a food source for them. 

We harvest our honey twice. The first crop comes off at the end of July/beginning of August, when summer flowers are over, and the goldenrod is just coming out. Goldenrod honey is yellower and thicker than the mixed summer flower honey. We take the final crop off around Labour Day. This gives the bees plenty of time to fill their comb with pollen and honey in the brood chamber, once the young bees who will overwinter, are hatched.

We sell our honey at a local bakery and hardware shop, from the farm and at the Almonte Farmers’ Market. During the winter, when the woodstove is on, I melt and clean the wax that we collect. My methodology is learned from Kurt and is rather basic. We know people who are always looking to buy beeswax.

Over the 17 years that I have been working with Kurt and the bees, we have witnessed a serious decline in the number of hives that survive the winter. Our autopsies have not always come up with varroa mite infestation as the cause. When you don’t use synthetic chemicals to treat for mites, as in our case, mites immediately become the assumed cause of death, signs of which include wingless, dead young bees and dead mites littering the bottom board of the hive.  In a few cases, the bees may have abandoned the hive altogether, the reasoning for which we cannot explain.

A more common cause of death is starvation if, for some reason, the bees do not move up to feed in the second brood box (which is full of honey).  In a double brood box system the bees cluster in the first brood box, and move up to the second brood box later in the winter.

Kurt has been keeping bees without using chemical treatments for over 60 years, and until about 10 years ago his expectation was a 10% hive loss over winter. In the past 10 years his losses have grown to between 60-100%. I have witnessed a similar decline in my short experience as a beekeeper. Since I have witnessed little or no evidence of mite infestation, it is hard to come to any definite conclusion about why the colonies die.

Last year we used formic acid for the first time – the only mite control that is suitable for certified organic production.* Eight out of 10 hives made it through the winter. So far this winter, 6 out of 9 hives are still alive. So are Kurt’s 2 hives, both untreated for mites.  As I write it is approaching mid-winter, and anything can happen before the dandelions are out.

The other way we try to control mite infestation is to divide the hives. This interrupts the brood cycle.  Mites prefer to lay eggs in the drone brood cells because they share the same gestation period. Drones are raised only when a hive is very strong. When the hive is divided, the queen-less division has to start from scratch. The queen-rite colony is also set back by the removal of several frames of brood, interrupting the drone cycle. Some beekeepers will actually destroy drone cells to control mites, but this also destroys the potential for a queen to mate and limits genetic diversity.

Keeping bees has taught me to be more observant of the larger natural web that we live in. Patience, attention to detail, calmness and dedication are qualities that I have been honing thanks to the honeybees. I notice other types of bees, where they work and how they operate. I notice the cycle of the seasons through the flowers that are blooming. I think about other insects and their life cycles. Keeping bees has brought me in touch with a rhythm that I was not in touch with before. And to top it off, working with an elder put current trends into a larger context. 

For anyone interested in getting into beekeeping, I would recommend working with someone who is experienced. Beekeeping is a lot of heavy work, and it is nice to be able to discuss what is being witnessed with someone who understands. To find an experienced beekeeper visit a local farmers market or contact your local beekeeper’s association.

Hilary Moore

Maplelane Farm


*Our honey could never be certified organic because of those fields of conventional corn and soy within a 3 km radius of our hives.

Making Honey While the Sun Shines