Mary Eaton first arrived in Northern Ontario from Nova Scotia in 1975/76 for a job teaching art in a 'Have Province'.
"Being an art teacher, I fell in love with the area, especially the Jack Pines which I quickly realized that Tom Thompson wasn't just painting an impression of – they really looked like what he painted," says Mary Eaton.
After a couple of moves within the area, she now resides at her present home in Laird where she met another teacher shortly thereafter. Together, they ventured off into the world of beekeeping.
When her new friend suggested – since they live in an agricultural area – they should consider taking up a hobby that reflects it, Mary knew she had to find something that would not add too much to her already heavy teaching workload. She initially thought about keeping goats but couldn't see herself letting them out in the morning before school and putting them back in at night. She put that idea to rest.
In 1992 she was contacted by her friend who had a student leaving the area to pursue further studies. He had bee colonies and wanted to sell them. Would she be interested in buying them with her?
That first year, the bees resided with her friend since Mary had a trip planned to Scandinavia. When she returned that fall, they borrowed an old hand crank extractor from another beekeeper. With the help of her nephews, together they extracted 300 pounds of honey from the two full strength hives.
"For my half, I had enough for myself and lots to give away as gifts," Mary says.
"The next year, we moved one hive to my property and I bought a Nuc (starter hive). I had a lot to learn. I took a couple of courses from Guelph University (through the mail), learned to put heavy duty fencing up to keep out the bears and skunks, and selling honey."
"The bees do a wonderful job in my garden, pollinating my squash and pumpkins, fruit trees and even the darn dandelions. I've learned about our indigenous bees and understand their importance in our agriculture sector also. I worry about herbicides and sprays used to kill vegetation and other pests because they can kill honeybees and our indigenous bees."
Mary serves as the contact person for the Algoma Beekeepers Association.
"There are at least 20 beekeepers, from Blind River to Sault Ste. Marie and possibly more that I am not aware of."
"Most hives in this area can produce about four honey supers or about 100 pounds of honey each," she explains. "The blank frames that I put in for comb honey will take twice as long and that is why it costs more and those hives will probably not produce as much."
And, there's evidence the honey local beekepers produce is good for you.
"The latest research coming from OMFRA (Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) and Guelph U is that the oil the bees secrete at 90°F to make the wax and then becomes an oil again when you eat it, is good for your heart and veins," Eaton says. "Honey is a natural sugar. One tablespoon of honey (equals) 16 g of sugar. Raw honey does not need to be pasteurized. It's so full of sugar that it is antibacterial and anti-fungal."
"Raw honey is the honey that hasn't been heat-treated (more nutritional value). All my honey is raw honey which means it hasn't been heat-treated. Some companies heat-treat their honey to stop the crystallization. However, heat treating honey kills some of the nutritional value. It's better for you to just get used to crystallized honey."
When honey has been heat-treated, the label will read "Pasteurized." The pasteurization process diminishes the nutrient value of the honey. Many folks, including Mary, prefer the raw honey for that nutritional or medicinal value. They bake with it, use it in tea or other sweet treats, or for addressing cuts, burns or sore throats.
"Keeping bees has been a continuous learning experience. It's still just a hobby business, but I love doing it and helping other beekeepers and learning from them also," says Eaton.
Each hive consists of one queen whose sole job is to mate and lay eggs; male bees, known as drones whose job in life is to mate with that queen; and the females, also known as worker bees who spend the first part of their lives in the hive feeding eggs, cleaning the hive, and pollen and nectar collecting on the outside.
It seems the life cycle of a honey bee is very short and fascinating. In total, each bee can live approximately six weeks. A queen will be mated with six to eight drones. She is the one who lives the longest from the hive. The more often she mates, the longer she can live and lay eggs. Her lifespan can extend up to four years.
Once the drones have mated, they die since their job is done and they have lost their reproductive ability. All other drones die after their short lifespan regardless.
The queen will lay eggs in the nucleus of the hive (brood boxes). The eggs will be fed, cooled and cleaned by the worker bees.
Female bees are the workforce of the population. They remain unmated. After sucking the nectar from flowers using their proboscis, they deposit it into beeswax cells inside the hive. They then fan it to thicken and cap the cell over with beeswax when it is full. Once the main hive/brood boxes are at capacity, the worker bees begin storing in the two frames at the top of the hive which is the excess the keeper will harvest in the fall. What is in the brood boxes remains with the hive for food over winter.
It's extremely important to shelter hives from rodents and other larger animals. A larger animal can destroy infrastructure, honey stores and populations. If a rodent such as a mouse infiltrates the hive, the bees would sting to kill, meaning large numbers would lose their lives prematurely which can be devastating to bee populations.
Mary sets her hives up so that they consist of two brood boxes, where the queen and her workers reside, and two supers on top of those for the excess honey – one for the collection of comb honey and one for regular honey.
Comb honey, on average, takes much longer to produce. The queen and drones are blocked out of these boxes by wire mesh known as a 'queen excluder' so they are only accessed by the much smaller female worker bees as a place to store excess nectar/honey. This honey – raw honey – is what keepers use for either themselves or to sell. It's generally harvested in the fall just after the first frost.
"In the early fall, I will have to get my extracting room cleaned up and equipment sterilized before I bring in the honey supers to start extracting the liquid honey and cutting up the comb honey. It's a lot of work, but it is fun and a continuous learning experience," explains Eaton.