What comes to mind when you think of a honey bee? We often picture flowers, pollen, honey and hives, but for Chris Kirouac and Lindsay Nikkel, the owners of Beeproject Apiaries, bees are much more than just pollinators.
“We see honey bees as ambassadors for pollinators and sustainable, organic urban farming and food production,” says Chris. He and Lindsay are the co-owners of Beeproject Apiaries, a growing Winnipeg business that combines urban beekeeping with education, food production, and community engagement.
We recently chatted with Chris and Lindsay about how they got into beekeeping, why urban beekeeping and supporting pollinators is so important, and how Winnipeggers can get involved.
Beekeeping is an “addictive hobby”
“I’ve always been interested in projects around gardening and food construction,” says Chris.
Both he and Lindsay are trained as registered nurses, but after taking the “Beekeeping for the Hobbyist” course through the University of Manitoba’s Agriculture Department in 2009, their interest shifted from honey to the bees themselves.
“The University of Manitoba course engaged us in the conversation of bees, and speaking to beekeepers over the next few years at farmers markets and through the small farms movement, we learned even more,” says Lindsay.
“We’re trying to influence how beekeepers keep bees by acting as representatives for beekeepers in the city. We’re very vocal on social media about how we beekeep and our values around beekeeping, such as sustainability, in order to try and positively influence others.”
Lindsay grew up on a farm in southern Alberta, which specialized in pollination using leafcutter bees. After taking the course, the two realized that the “charismatic honey bee” could act as a catalyst to help drive discussion around the importance of pollinators in our food ecosystem, food security, and local food production.
“Beekeeping is an addictive hobby,” explains Chris. “We bought our first few hives and realized that beekeeping has a basic level of knowledge, but like gardening and home brewing, there’s so much continuous learning involved.”
“We were able to take what we learned from our nursing background and apply it to beekeeping,” Lindsay explains. “We want to help the bees in Manitoba and Canada be sustainable, which is why we use organic products and practice sustainable beekeeping.”
The Beeproject business model
According to Chris, Beeproject Apiaries started off “trying to be successful under a conventional model.” They used organic hives and management techniques to produce and sell single units of honey at local farmers markets. However, this proved to be more of a challenge than they initially expected.
“You can sell honey as a commodity,” Chris says, “but it fluctuated from year to year. So our honey prices are determined by the global market, on incoming honey from other countries, and on issues like honey smuggling from China, which has become problematic for honey sales in Canada.”
These days, Beeproject focuses primarily on their Hive Projects, where they engage with partners throughout the city to install and maintain hives for food, research, and student and community learning engagement. Chris describes their current business model as a “turnkey operation” where organizations can get involved as much or as little as they want.
Chris explains that after hives have been installed, Beeproject handles all of the beekeeping work while encouraging partners to attend and learn as they take care of, inspect and maintain the hives. In turn, they are compensated for their time, expertise, equipment installation and hive maintenance.
“We encourage learning and attendance when we’re working with the bees,” says Chris, “but our partners aren’t responsible for maintaining the hives.” He also adds that when the beekeeping season ends (seasons typically run from May through September), hive partners receive the bottled honey from their own hives to use however they want. Some organizations keep it for personal use, while others donate it to local shelters and causes.
Are the bees dying? Educating others about pollinators
One of the most important aspects of Beeproject’s business model is community engagement and education. From regular consumers and private sector partners, to restaurants and beekeepers alike, everyone seems to have questions about the future of pollinators.
Chris explains, “The question we probably get the most from the public is ‘are the bees dying?’ The second is ‘why should I care about bees?’”
He explains that many of the people they speak to at community events, farmers markets, and partner organization meetings are more concerned with being stung by bees than about the value these pollinators add to our ecosystem.
“Honey bees are docile and charming, so we see them as a great representative of pollinators in general,” says Lindsay. “When we push for lower pesticide use and saving pollinator habitats, we describe these practices as helping ‘native pollinators’ like bees and butterflies.”
They also receive questions from other beekeepers about sustainable beekeeping and how to recognize and prevent disease within a hive. Many local restaurateurs have begun contacting them about honey and the various floral sources within and outside of the city.
Manitoba beekeeping challenges
Because of our long, cold winters, honey bees are not native to Manitoba. Chris explains that a lot of work goes into maintaining the hives and keeping the bees healthy, since there can be up to six months of the year when the bees are unable to leave their hives to find flowers.
“If a hive isn’t already in excellent health going into the winter, it often won’t make it,” Chris says. He explains that beekeepers need to work very hard to prepare the hive for the cold months, ensuring there are no diseases present and that the bees have adequate food and ventilation while still being insulated against our very low temperatures.
The bees go into a semi-dormant state during the winters, where they group together for warmth and only wake occasionally to eat a little honey. Therefore, it’s critical to ensure that the bees have a diverse diet using organic methods in order to maintain hive health throughout the winter.
Beeproject’s prized product is arguably the “hive products” – honey, wax and pollen from several of their urban projects throughout Winnipeg. Honey is harvested from these hives and sold as ‘Neighbourhood Honey,’ which each have unique flavours based on where the hives are located.
“The honey from each part of the city tastes different because the flowers and pollen sources in each area vary, causing each hive to produce its own unique ‘flavour’ of honey,” explains Chris. He also adds that other elements such as weather can also impact the taste.
One of the reasons Lindsay and Chris love their Neighbourhood Honey project is that customers can sample honey from different parts of the city.
“We get people asking if the honey tastes like car exhaust before trying a sample,” laughs Lindsay, “which is obviously not the case.” She goes on to add that the “unique tie-in” to the city is a great way to raise awareness about the local food movement and the importance of pollinators in urban centres.
“Urban hives have a really small urban footprint and are super versatile,” she adds. “By engaging with the community and raising awareness through projects like our Urban Hive partnerships plus the Neighbourhood Honey at farmers markets and around the city, we’re strengthening the true value of having honey bees (in Winnipeg).”
Where to find them
Until recently, most of us could only run into Chris and Lindsay at local farmers markets, but they’ve now opened a shop called ‘BeeSpace’ at 196 Osborne Street in Winnipeg, where the public can watch them process and bottle honey, as well as purchase creamed or Neighbourhood Honey.
“You can usually find us in there about four days a week harvesting honey,” says Lindsay, adding that they’re hoping to use the space to hold workshops in the fall and winter seasons.
Want to get your hands on their super-popular Neighbourhood Honey? Right now it’s also sold in Winnipeg at Forth Café & Restaurant and Chew Restaurant, but Chris adds that Parlour Coffee will eventually be selling their own brand of Neighbourhood Honey in the not-too-distant future, and Red River College will be selling their brand of Neighbourhood Honey at their upcoming farmers market.
If you’d like to pick up some creamed honey, you can stop by a number of coffee shops, restaurants, and other local businesses around Winnipeg. Chris recommends checking their website for the location nearest you. You can also find all of their hive locations throughout Winnipeg by searching their map.
Want to keep up with everything that Beeproject Apiaries is up to? Make sure to follow them on social media, by liking their Facebook page and following them on Twitter and Instagram to keep up-to-date on this sustainably delicious local business.
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