Prairie Post (East Edition)

Sweet Pure Honey is a labour-in­ten­sive busi­ness; bee­keep­ing more than just hives

- By Ryan Dahlman Lifestyle · Medicine Hat · New Zealand · Chile · Alberta · Porcupine Plain · Saskatchewan

Many peo­ple in south­east Al­berta know Stella Sehn, the hard­work­ing and en­gag­ing face of Sweet Pure Honey.

Be­sides mak­ing a lot of the nat­u­ral honey home­based prod­ucts such as soaps, cos­met­ics and spreads, Sehn is con­stantly mar­ket­ing, ship­ping and find­ing new cus­tomers all over the world for the busi­ness.

While highly vis­i­ble, Sehn will be the first to tell you it is a two-per­son ef­fort and her part­ner Shel­don Hill is the bee­keeper for the op­er­a­tion. A high de­mand­ing job, it is far more phys­i­cally and men­tally de­mand­ing than one would ex­pect.

It sur­prised even him. Hav­ing been raised and of course work­ing on a mixed grain farm, Hill was not ex­pect­ing it to be as dif­fi­cult as it is. For ex­am­ple, he did not know it was go­ing to be as hot as it was.

“I grew up on a farm and I thought I knew what it was like to work hard,” ex­plains Hill. “Hon­estly, this job is not for ev­ery­body. It is men­tally very tough…it pushes you to your phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions”, (it is) ,“too much for some peo­ple. …it is so hot., it is like run­ning a marathon. I don’t know how to de­scribe it. It re­ally pushes you phys­i­cally and men­tally. It sees what you are made of. I kinda like that chal­lenge of it (now). At first, it was ter­ri­ble.”

Sweet Pure Honey has their hives based in Por­cu­pine Plain Sask, which is about an eight-hour jour­ney from their home base in Medicine Hat. Hill in­di­cates has ap­prox­i­mately 400 hives which fluc­tu­ates de­pend­ing on the year.

Hill ex­plains they pro­duce about 200-250 lbs per hive dur­ing the sea­son, so typ­i­cally Hill is look­ing at 80,000100,000 lbs of just the honey it­self. The box weighs 2022 lbs so be­sides a lot of the tech­ni­cal work, the phys­i­cal labour is de­mand­ing.

“So (in the sum­mer) you are lift­ing about thou­sands of pounds ev­ery day around by hand with a suit on, in the hottest part of the day,” adds Hill. “If the weather is good, you need to be bring­ing in honey.Like the old say­ing goes,’ Make hay when the sun is shin­ing’”. You get that odd day where it is rainy and so it is kind of a break so it’s nice. Be­cause you just go­ing so hard for so long.”

The sea­son is com­ing fast for Hill. It all starts in March is when there is an ex­am­i­na­tion of the hives and treat for Var­roa mites, make sure they still have enough food. He says this pro­gresses and con­tin­ues into April. You keep check­ing to make sure your hives have enough feed and maybe put on a pollen pat­ties. He will gen­er­ally be un­wrap­ping hives in early May and re­plac­ing any needed hives for the new sea­son.

This con­tin­ues of en­sur­ing of food, check­ing the bees’ health, rais­ing Queen cells and nu­cleus colonies to make up any win­ter loss.

“With bees the real strug­gle is try­ing to keep your honey pro­duc­ing num­bers up. This is your great­est chal­lenge,” ex­plains Hill. “It proved even more chal­leng­ing with flight re­stric­tions last spring from places like New Zealand and Chile where some of the re­place­ment hives come from to cover win­ter losses. I am not sure of the ac­tual num­bers, but just in Saskatchew­an It would be tens of thou­sands of pack­ages that were ex­pected by bee­keep­ers to cover their losses that didn’t ar­rive be­cause of the lock­downs.

“Last spring was very cold and dam­ag­ing to bees across most of the prairies, the hives just couldn’t get a break, they couldn’t fly, they couldn’t get some pollen and get that queen lay­ing , as a re­sult when the weather fi­nally did change we had more hives that made it through win­ter and died in the spring be­cause of the cold weather, and if they didn’t die they were small and weak. Be­ing smaller and weaker, this hurts their abil­ity to col­lect nec­tar later on, you need lots of bees to pro­duce honey and If you don’t that af­fects yield.”

The pay­off is when there’s honey to be har­vested, some­thing he de­scribes as flow. Honey flow usu­ally starts about in the sec­ond week of July for them. From that point they are har­vest­ing and ex­tract­ing the honey from the hon­ey­comb.

The days are start at 6:30 a.m. and go un­til 5 p.m. “You’re work­ing heavy hard pace. When you’re har­vest­ing honey, lot of mov­ing hive around chas­ing source your mov­ing hives there is lots of many less glam­orous jobs that have to get done. It adds up to a lot of long phys­i­cally de­mand­ing days, a lot of the

jobs are still done by hand. Those days are quite hot, quite long. It’s heavy,” ex­plains Hill of his sum­mers. “You’re push­ing your­self to the phys­i­cal lim­its.

“I drink as much as a gal­lon of wa­ter a day. I will do noth­ing but sweat that out all day, that is how much I am sweat­ing all day. I am lit­er­ally soaked from top to bot­tom in sweat. You know when you can feel the sweat run­ning down your calves, it’s a hot day out there. Even the peo­ple who want to come and work and you try to ex­plain to them what their job will en­tail like maybe lit­tle things that they need to worry about — like hy­dra­tion ob­vi­ously is a big one. Eat­ing well and get­ting enough sleep is im­por­tant.”

In each of the hives, con­sists of nine frames in each box, a good hive will have 5 or 6 boxes of honey each . You get the bees off the hon­ey­combs by en­cour­ag­ing them to move down to the bot­tom of the hive. You take all of the honey boxes off and re­place them with empty boxes. Take the full boxes back to the ware­house to be ex­tracted. To ex­tract the honey, the frames are run through an un­cap­per to take the thin layer of was off the top of the honey than ran through a large cylin­der­shaped ex­trac­tor. It is spun in cir­cu­lar fash­ion at high speed and cen­trifu­gal force spin the honey out of the frames. The honey comes out the ex­trac­tor and is pumped to a stor­age tank and then run into 45 gal­lon drums for stor­age, ready for ship­ping.

Har­vest con­tin­ues un­til about the last week in Au­gust where they start to get­ting the hives ready for win­ter. There are dis­ease treat­ments, pick­ing out hives that won’t make the win­ter and feed­ing them enough to make it through the long win­ter ahead. In late Septem­ber they wrap them up and by mid Oc­to­ber they are fin­ished.

“Most peo­ple don’t know a whole lot about it, (bee­keep­ing); it is not a very com­mon busi­ness,” ex­plains Hill. He says the pub­lic doesn’t un­der­stand or have been ex­posed to the in­dus­try. “I don’t think they un­der­stand much about bees. It is hard to de­scribe the process un­less you have gone through it. I have done a lot of jobs in my life, liked worked in the oil patch. I’ve done a lot of phys­i­cal jobs. I have worked with a com­pany where I dug ditches by hand for 10 hours a day re­plac­ing gas lines in old nat­u­ral gas fa­cil­i­ties and had to dig th­ese by hand. Even that, it pales in com­par­i­son to this job.”

Deal­ing with the heat can be chal­leng­ing,” Hills says it push­ing the work­ers so phys­i­cally hard that some peo­ple just break.” The suit con­sist of cov­er­alls with a pro­tec­tive hood is over your head. All that heat is be­ing trapped within the suit, re­strict­ing how much air flow one can breathe in. If you are ner­vous about bees it makes it much more stress­ful.

“You are get­ting stung. You’re in the suits and it might be 30 de­grees out­side and in­side your suit it more like 40 de­grees and it just pushes you to the limit of heat ex­haus­tion,” adds Hill. “It’s like some­one who chal­lenges them­selves to their phys­i­cal lim­its that’s sort of where we are at, that’s some­times too much for some peo­ple.”

They have a wide range of prod­ucts be­sides the raw honey with bath and body (soap, lip balm, scent sticks) and other beeswax prod­ucts like can­dles.

Hills worked in the oil patch dur­ing the bee off­sea­son, but this win­ter was laid off. A lot of ef­fort is put into the on­line store.

It has been a strug­gle for Hill and his wife Stella Sehn re­gard­ing their honey busi­ness. “The last cou­ple of years has been re­ally bad for some peo­ple in our in­dus­try in west­ern Canada. Per­son­ally, two years ago we had the small­est crop I have seen in the 25 years of bee­keep­ing. Last year’s crop in 2020 was smaller yet,” ex­plains Hill. “This year the price in­creased, but only be­cause honey pro­duc­tion was so dis­mal in al­most all of west­ern Canada. The pre­vi­ous four years the price of honey barely cov­ered costs. This is the pres­sure I have been un­der for the last five years.”

Hill add it is com­pa­ra­ble to any pres­sure any com­mod­ity pro­ducer has. “I don’t know if it’s worse now or not. I think that If you grew up on a grain farm that men­tal fac­tor is al­ways present and al­ways has been apart of the farm­ing busi­ness. I think you are al­ways un­der some type of stress, things you just can’t con­trol whether it be bad weather or some­thing like that. You are re­ally putting your­self out there. Both phys­i­cally and mon­e­tar­ily, you are ex­pos­ing your­self. You are re­ally throw­ing the dice and hop­ing it’s go­ing to work out. The amount of money that you put into in­puts whether it be grain farm­ing, (api­aries) on a hope and prayer It’s a stress­ful en­vi­ron­ment.”

Throw in bee dis­ease con­cerns and long, cold springs and you have a recipe for tough years. Any stress to the bees will cause their demise.

“You have a gen­eral idea from years past (how it will go), but you won’t real know un­til you open them up in spring and you see how they over­win­tered… You do what you can to keep your num­bers up. We are honey pro­duc­ers so there is a line there… It kind of fluc­tu­ates up and down.”

It is a men­tally ex­haust­ing in­dus­try both from the ac­tual work to the con­cern of whether or not they can sur­vive from a fi­nan­cial vi­a­bil­ity stand­point.

There is open dis­cus­sion about sav­ing small busi­nesses, Sehn de­scribe how they have to save the bee farm. It was a men­tal strain on both of them. Hill has gone to writ­ing a blog on the Sweet Pure Honey web­site dis­cussing men­tal health chal­lenges and thoughts of sui­cide. Sehn says they are do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to save their fam­ily bee farm.

Sehn points to a big part Hill’s men­tal de­cline was due to fi­nan­cial stress over the past four years. The petroleum sec­tor’s crash forced Hill out of his off­sea­son job which helped pay a lot of the bee farm’s costs.

“We have al­ways worked hard and just need to be paid fairly for our crop to move for­ward,” ex­plains Sehn.

She is hop­ing that peo­ple would in­vest in their spe­cial hive gift box pack­age that goes di­rectly to help cover their spring in­put costs for their hives. She says they need to sell 200 in­vest a hive boxes to cover their spring in­put costs.

 ?? Pho­tos con­trib­uted ?? Shel­don Hill smokes some of the bees from his hives.
Pho­tos con­trib­uted Shel­don Hill smokes some of the bees from his hives.
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 ?? Pho­tos con­trib­uted ?? From one of the hives a frame with some of the bees on it.
Pho­tos con­trib­uted From one of the hives a frame with some of the bees on it.

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