The “Hive Mates” series is back with another amazing beekeeper Eliese Watson of ABC Bees! Prepare to be amazed and inspired by what she has accomplished and everything she does for bees in her community and beyond.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live? How did you get into beekeeping?
I am Eliese Watson and I am a beekeeper from Calgary, Alberta. I started Apiaries & Bees for Communities in 2010 in an active effort to build a sustainable treatment-free apiary and urban/small scale beekeeping educational opportunities for hobbyists. Alberta is the third-largest honey producing region in the world and despite that, there was very little opportunity for hobby beekeepers to take courses, get their hands sticky, and access local honey bee stock. We have remedied that and focus on teaching beekeepers how to become fully self-su cient in splits and queen rearing practices.
I always wanted to be a beekeeper, but never thought it would become my passion. While I was in University, a friend of mine and I built a 4 different top bar hive designs and in chatting with a guest at a local food production summit, I was interviewed for a local indie rock magazine. Two weeks later, the print came out about me and my beehives (I think that it is important to mention that I didn’t have bees then, it was winter in Canada and I had never been in a beehive before) and my answering machine was full of inquiries for local institutions and businesses wanting to participate. Needless to say, it freaked me out and I went tree planting instead of beekeeping that summer. In the subsequent Fall I won a scholarship to attend and present some research at a conference at Guelph University. At this conference I received a grant to start ABC Bees in an effort to bring in teachers to teach ABC Bees clients and myself all about beekeeping. In the spring of 2010 I went to work with Corwin Bell in Colorado for top bar hive mentorship and have since worked with Sam Comfort, Kirk Anderson and spoken at beekeeping conferences beside Dr. Tom Seeley, Dee Lusby, and Les Crowder.
What kind of programs are you running at ABC bees?
At ABC Bees we run 3 branches of programming: Honey Bee Education, Native Bee Education and Advocacy, and Queen Production.
– Our Honey Bee Education is diverse, from leasing colonies to corporate sponsors and spreading these 30 colonies over 6 bee yards throughout the city of Calgary for Field Days, Home2Hive Bike Tours, Level Two Beekeeping Certificates and Internship opportunities, to elementary school education and outreach programming. Our goal is to allow as many opportunities as possible for interested bee lovers to get their hands sticky throughout the summer months. In the winter we run the Level One Beekeeping Certificate, which is a 2-day intensive beekeeping course. The curriculum is so fantastic that it is now worth Continuing Education Credits at NAIT College in Edmonton, Alberta.
– Native Bee Education and Outreach is an important part of ABC Bees mandate. From 2010-2012, ABC Bees ran a civil-based research project in collaboration with Mount Royal University. The project was called the Bumble Bee Rescue and Foster Parent Program. Our goal was to remove problematic nests from domestic urban locations and re-home them with local foster families for the remainder of the nesting season. This was in effort to catalogue bumble bee species, health, and nesting populations in Calgary (an area with the highest diversity of bumble bee species in the world) while actively educating the public about the importance of all pollinating insects. Today we are working with the City of Calgary Roads and Parks departments to create native bee pathways and habitats in public spaces and our public school systems to create school gardens with spaces for nesting solitary bees.
– Lastly, is our Queen Production Program. Our goal is that by 2020 ABC Bees will be the only producer and retailer of treatment-free hygienic queens. We have been raising queens on a small scale for the past 2 years and this 2017 season we are jumping head first in an e ort to produce quality, resilient queens that cope with our long prairie winters, varroa mite infestation, and maximize honey production. We want to innovate the Alberta beekeeping industry and lead the way in short season queen production with treatment- free management strategies.
How many hives do you manage? How many apiary sites?
We manage 9 apiary sites, 6 of which are urban and near the downtown core of Calgary. Three of our apiary sites are rural and used for queen and larger honey production. We care for 60 colonies throughout these yards.
How do you keep track of your hives? Do you take notes?
Every year we look at strategies to increase our effciency of colony observations. Our urban colonies are inspected using our ABC Bees Inspection Application with a large quantity of images to share with our corporate partners who lease the colonies annually. Our rural colonies are managed in various ways. Each hive is numbered and labelled, including the supers (we had AFB in the past, and now I like to keep track of what colonies my supers have been on) and the inner cover has a plastic laminated sheet dedicated to that colony. Shorthand notes are taken with a marker (ease of gloved interns) and longer hand notes are taken at the end of the work day in a master note book. I keep a smaller notebook on hand to list equipment and material required on my next return to the bee yard.
What’s the best part of beekeeping?
My favourite part of beekeeping is the bees. Everything melts away when I work with them and honestly, I can’t believe that I have been doing this for a living. A close second are the interns and students. The diversity of people that come out to beekeep with me is amazing. I have made many lifelong friends through our shared love of the bee and each with amazing skills, education, empathy and kindness that I never thought existed before.
What’s the worst part of beekeeping?
The worst part of beekeeping for me is the winter and winterizing. The length and depth of winter here on the prairies can be su ocating. I have nightmares about the welfare of my bees every year and struggle to go in to my bee yard for fear of their well being (especially since I am the only commercial treatment-free beekeeper in Alberta, and I receive a LOT of criticism and fear based emails which make me feel even worse). It’s tough for everyone who has to bundle their bees up and leave them to the elements and the pests for months at a time.
All new beekeepers make mistakes, can you share one you made when you were a beginner?
I think a primary mistake new beekeepers make, myself included, is not having enough equipment: that includes hives, protective equipment, and tools. My second year beekeeping Sam Comfort came up and worked bees with me in Alberta for 2 weeks. By the 5th day we had caught and cut out about 6 swarms and I ran out of hive bodies. We had great success with gentle bees in accessible locations and I was feeling overly confident. We went to a call for a swarm about 7ft o the ground in a nice tree and because we were out of equipment, we went to a liquor store and got a wine box to drop the bees in to and planned to whip up a top bar hive later that night. We got to the swarm and it was about 8lbs (thats about 12L of bees). I chose to hold the box while Sam shook the branch to drop the bees in the box. Well, I didn’t have a suit on but a nice loose sun dress, and when the swarm dropped, half of the swarm landed on my head, down my dress, and over my neck. I was stung about 40 times all over my body. It was stupid, I was stupid. I was ok though too. I’m lucky that I have a high tolerance of stings and the bees were calm ones. I walked away and amazingly enough the queen ended up in the box, the swarm settled, and we went home with them. So lesson learned. Have ALL of the equipment required to safely and responsibly beekeep so as Kirk Anderson says “So you never wished the hell you did”.
Can you tell us some cool things about bumble bees that you have learned through your partnership with the lab?
Bumble bees are incredibly interesting. The fact that they are primitively eusocial means that they are only social insects in the summer, and solitary throughout the winter with Queens hibernating alone in poorly drained soils regulating their own temperatures like bears in a cave. Because of this I learned very quick when doing removals that there is no queen loyalty. That means that just because you move the nest and the queen in to a new box, the lingering foragers do not follow. So we would use bug nets to capture the bumbles in flight and one by one put them in to the enclosed nest box. This made for long evenings. We always chose to try to do removals in the evening because like honey bees, bumble bees see in UV light spectrum. This means that they are completely blind at night and therefore head back to the nest at night fall. This increases our capacity to capture a majority of the nest population for our studies.
What accomplishment (so far) are you most proud of?
My proudest accomplishment was being asked to speak to the National Senate on behalf of the hobby and urban beekeeping community. The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry were reviewing the importance of honey bees in Sustainable Food Production. I argued that there was a need for better Federal and Provincial supports of education and collaboration opportunities between industry and hobby production. I outlined various strategies on how this could be accomplished. My argument became one of eight recommendations the Senate Committee focussed on in their study and put forward. I aim to build relationships with the commercial industry so we can work together to create sustainable and successful honey bee management.
Is there anything new you are working on now that you’re excited about?
This year we are moving our honey extraction (both foundation and foundation less combs) in to a custom designed shipping container. We aim to create an e cient and biosecure site that allows for other hobby beekeepers to lease and use the facility based on honey volume. We have a strong gap between production and extraction because extraction equipment is so expensive. By working together at this site, I hope to decrease the barriers for beekeepers to increase the financial return of their colonies and ideally flood the honey market with hyper-local terroir products to help beekeepers make a living o of smaller more sustainably managed apiaries.
What challenges have you faced as a female beekeeper/entrepreneur? How did you or do you overcome those challenges?
This is a good question. Beekeeping as an industry is slow to advance in technology and innovation. The Langstroth hive was patented in the late 19th century and was not in wide use until about 40 years later. This is because wax is a tough commodity to replace and margins are tight to put any financial investment toward a new way of doing things. I do not come from a family of beekeepers, I do not manage my bees in a conventional way, and I am introducing outsiders to an industry that has been declining for the past 50 years. Commercial Alberta beekeepers are a small, tight knit, male dominated, and conservative community. Change is not on their agenda while the price of honey is dropping annually, resistant diseases grow, small hive beetle looms, costs of bees are on the rise, and the expense of petrol grows. It is tough to make a living as a commercial beekeeper here. So now that things are getting tougher, I am even less of a popular person than before (I honestly didn’t think that was even possible). The agent of change is the first to get the abuse and my road has not been without trouble. I had a nervous breakdown in 2013 led by over ambition, stress, and aggressive and hurtful abuse from local beekeepers. As a woman I think the hardest part was that I didn’t have anyone to connect with about what I was going through. All of my mentors were wonderfully supportive men in their 50’s with a thick skin and a solid identity and direction. I still struggle with feeling secure in my role as a beekeeper, leader, and teacher. It is because no matter what I do, I am young, female, and managing my bees in a way that only “CRAZY and DANGEROUS” people do.
Overcoming these challenges only happened because of the community of support I had around me (and I was blind to before hand). Friends, family, businesses and beekeepers. My dear friend helped me organize a charrette, this is an event where stakeholders, and in my case people with a whole lot more knowledge about business and social enterprise, attend and participate in resolving conflicts within a company. I invited 12 people and they all came (even the ones I barely knew but respected!). They busted ABC Bees apart and gave me a lot of great advice. The hardest part was to trust them and do it. I followed everything they told me; I ended pet projects like the Bumble Bee Research and focussed on the projects that made me money and were low stress. I increased my time beekeeping and decreased my time online! I hate social media and computers anyways, so why not! The biggest thing that I continue to work on today is accepting my success, allowing the sensation of pride and simple day-to-day goal completion to flood me. To let the sense of accomplishment to seep in to my over-achieving, nothing is good enough, your not working hard enough mentality. Being a new mother has helped me see the small victories. If I can jump up and down with pride at my daughters mumbled words “tank tou” then I should be just as happy that I had 90% success at my grafts this year. I am learning, failing, succeeding and accepting everyday.