by Lisa Richardson
“Your average consumer is curious about colony collapse, or honey’s health benefits. But serious foodies are the only ones asking about fake honey.” ~ Bruce Boynton, CEO of the US National Honey Board.
You just have to learn a little bit about honey to realize it’s a true culinary marvel, but it takes a foodie, it seems, to appreciate that this rare delicacy is in danger.
Across the world, honey is being cut with corn syrup, or adulterated with illegal Chinese honey, or even packaged and counterfeited as a different type of honey altogether. It doesn’t help that the bees themselves are in peril – dying off in unprecedented numbers.
Which is why the beekeepers of the BC, including throughout the Sea to Sky, are perhaps the most important people in our entire local food chain. After all, in a world without bees, there’s not much left to eat. To say nothing of honey, which may truly be the most underrated foodstuff on earth. Just ask the pharaohs. They were entombed with it. And because of the marvellous bacteria-proof nature of the stuff, when they peeled back the wax seal on the honeycomb, the honey found in Egyptian tombs was still edible. It hadn’t gone bad, because honey doesn’t go bad. It’s that good.
Delores Los is one of Pemberton’s most experienced bee keepers.
As a young Outdoor Ed teacher in Squamish, she was asked to take on the care of the school’s hives. Knowing nothing about bees, she sought out a local expert, the late Orval Van Horlick, of Paradise Valley, one of Squamish’s pioneers, who took her under his wing. When she later moved up to teach at the Pemberton Outdoor School, she set up hives and kept bees there for 15 years.
40 years after that first entree into bee-keeping, she has eight hives of her own, housing, at the height of summer, almost 800,000 bees.
When she realized that a new generation of young bee keepers was coming to the craft – inspired in part by the media attention given to colony collapse disorder – she initiated a beekeepers association in Pemberton, which now has 23 members, from 80 year old veterans to complete rookies, sharing know-how, and building a stronger bee-keeping community.
This July, Mark Winston, bee expert and the award-winning author of Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, reported that BC bees are thriving, with the lowest colony winter losses in North America – a resilience due partly to the high level of expertise among local bee keepers, and partly because the bee colonies tend to be smaller, local, and less industrial here.
He’s also noted a shift in bee-keeping, over his 40 years in the craft, since the advent of the bee apocalypse. “A typical local meeting of bee-keepers used to have ten crotchety men over the age of 70.” Now, even for a local meeting, hundreds of people, including young people and women, are in the crowd. “People care about bees. And the new wave of beekeepers also care about food, and growing local, and many put bee health first, emphasizing the enjoyment of beekeeping as much or more as maximizing colony productivity. It’s a movement deeply rooted in an expanding food culture that favors local farming and reductions of synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use.”
It’s a trend that the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts embraced, placing honeybee hives on rooftop gardens and installing wild bee “hotels”, throughout their hotels from 2008. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler installed four beehives in 2013, expanding to 12 hives last year, which house between 180,000 and 300,000 bees each year. With the help of honeybee keeper Steve Gourley, of Gold Strike Honey, (a Squamish and Whistler Farmers’ Market regular) who checks in on them weekly, the Fairmont’s bees produce about 180 kg/400 lbs of delicate wildflower honey every season, for use by the Chef and mixology team.
Photo: Rob Miller / Fairmont Chateau Whistler
Gourley actually relocated his own bees to Lillooet, from the Fraser Valley where he was grown and raised, in 2012, in search of a less contaminated ecosystem. “We decided to take a leap of faith and come up and try and produce honey in a cleaner environment.” It worked. “They look amazing now.”
In Gourley’s ideal world, every ditch would be full of flowers and every yard would be full of dandelions.
And every table, no doubt, would feature authentic local honey.
They can’t do it alone. They might have millions of bees on their side, but they need us, too, to swell their ranks, be loud for local, devour their honey, and revel in imperfect clover-covered lawns.
Writer Lisa Richardson has been lovingly awarded Pemberton’s favourite writer award 7 years running. Cornucopia’s favourite local food writer, Lisa is currently also senior writer for Coast Mountain Culture magazine, editor of the Winds of Change’s Wellness Almanac and columnist in the Whistler Question.
Photos: Photo: Rob Miller / Fairmont Chateau Whistler