Bee School and Second Acts

By Carol Patterson

At an age when many people are enjoying an empty nest, retired realtor and property manager Helen Kennedy filled hers with millions of bees.

Kennedy and her husband Rick Appel moved from Edmonton to Kelowna in 2000 with the intention of retiring to enjoy Okanagan lakes and vineyards. A year later they allowed an older gentleman to put 25 beehives on their acreage. They didn’t realize their hospitality would change their lives.

Five years later the beekeeper was ill so Kennedy and her husband bought the hives. They discovered it wasn’t just the previous owner who was unwell, half the hives were diseased and had to be destroyed. Some people may have taken this as a sign to cut their losses and move on but Kennedy and Appel had fallen under the spell of the tiny insects.

“We started to get serious about the bee business,” Kennedy recalled of her decision to don a bee suit. At a time in her life when she might have been vacationing in Hawaii, she was importing queen bees from Kona and creating new hives.  “I’ve never been busier,” she observed as she paused to calculate how many bees live on the farm (approximately 4 million) and the glint in her eye suggested a satisfaction with her life choices.

Visitors to Arlo’s Honey Farm can browse the shop where honey and candles are sold or enrol in an educational program. Initially Kennedy and Appel welcomed visitors in their garage but quickly realized they needed a bigger facility and they added a production facility and classroom. Her bee school doesn’t teach bees how to make honey (they already know) but a screened teaching space shelters timid visitors while beekeepers open a working hive.

“What we wanted to do here is create a natural experience,” Kennedy said on the difference between her display that puts the barrier around the people, not the bees. “Most places have bee hives that are locked in a glass cage and bees can come and go but I think it’s cruel for the bees if it’s not cleaned. Bees are very clean themselves and I think it’s hard for them to climb into a glass tube and do their work.”

“Most people are amazed,” said Kennedy of the oohs from the audience when the hive is opened, “even though you tell them there are 60,000 to 80,000 bees in a hive they don’t get it until they see it.”

Each hive is opened only for 10 to 15 minutes to avoid disturbing the bees and the same hive is not used two days in a row. Asked how you can tell a bee is disturbed, Kennedy commented thoughtfully. “When bees are happy they don’t make much noise but when they are unhappy the pitch changes. When they get really unhappy they start to hit your hood (of the bee suit).”

Surprisingly bee stings are not the job’s biggest hazards – it’s bears with a sweet tooth. To keep a hive (and the beekeeper) happy one needs water, forage and protection from bears. Kennedy keeps a wary eye out for bruins but takes the stings in stride, “when we pull honey we get stung, it’s like taking someone’s wallet.” In the fall she removes about a third of a hive’s honey leaving the rest for the bees to eat over winter.

At the farm every plant is selected for its ability to nourish bees. “Mono-cropping isn’t good for bees. Just like we need to eat food from various food groups, the bees need a variety of foods, ” clarified Kennedy, “pollinating blueberries for three weeks for a bee would be like us eating lettuce for three weeks.”

“I don’t move bees around (from field to field) as its too stressful for the bees,” Kenney explained although some of her hives reside permanently at nearby wineries, “Bees don’t pollinate grapes but forage on the row crops under the vines. That has a beneficial effect for the grapes because there is less of other invasive bugs.”

As Appel’s health deteriorated over the last couple of years Kennedy took over more of the business. With his passing this summer she is unsure what the future holds. She can take care of the bees but worries about keeping the retail operation open. “The hard thing about Kelowna is the staffing. Every year I hire and train. I just don’t know if I can go through the hiring and training”, she mused on her future, “but I love the lifestyle. My husband always told me I couldn’t retire because too many people depend on me for my honey.”

Kennedy also wants people to understand bees better. “They are such a tiny little insect that no one really notices but they do so much for us. They are here to help us, not to hurt us and without them there wouldn’t be us.” And bees are being threatened.

Pesticides like neonicotinoids and climate change harm honeybees credited with pollinating three quarters of flowering plant species and a third of the world’s food crops. With this summer’s forest fires and thick smoke hanging in the air bees find it harder to breathe. They stay nearer the hive and produce less honey. Wasps or stronger hives can attack and rob the bees of their honey making it hard for them to recover.

As death has robbed Kenney of her life partner she grabbles with how to continue her life with bees. “It’s something I really have to think about,” she explained on her decision to close early this year to grieve and consider her future at the farm. “My life is in flux. ” She paused for few seconds before adding, “I’m guessing I will still be here next year.”