Year of the Beekeeper: Beelicious Inc.
Owners: Connie and Andrew McNeil
Location: Bezanson, Alberta
Question: How did you get involved in this sweet industry – what’s your story?
Answer: The summer of 1985, I worked for Peter Beerman south of Calgary and got “bitten by the bug.” I always remembered that job as a cool way to spend a summer. When Connie and I got married in 2012 I constantly regaled her with stories about my beekeeping adventures from that summer. In late 2013 we moved to a large acreage and in spring 2014 we bought 3 packages and enough equipment to make some bees and honey. By the end of that fall, we were hooked!
Jack Trepanier from Wembley gave us some much-needed guidance in the early years, showing us how to take care of the bees and read their moods. He sold honey to both of Connie’s grandmas back in the day, and he really inspired us to be good beekeepers. In 2016 Luc and Lorraine Desaulniers in Falher opened their operation to us and showed us how they managed their colonies and how they ran a commercial operation. They really inspired us to step into the commercial side of the industry.
We incorporated Beelicious Inc. in early 2015 and started selling our ‘Farm Fresh’ creamed honey to some local retailers. Building up our livestock and running a proof of concept for wholesale honey sales took the next couple of years, and in 2017 we built a 3200 sqft CFIA licensed extracting and bottling plant and started taking on big grocery retailers such as Save-On Foods, Sobeys, etc. We imported our creaming equipment and packing line from Europe and have spent the last three years perfecting the process. Our creamed honey has the consistency of peanut butter, with no graininess whatsoever.
In 2019, to expand our business, we took over managing a defunct operation in Bezanson and have successfully turned it around over the past two years. This year we will keep increasing our livestock and knowledge and will continue to spread our hive products into retail stores across Alberta and BC, and into Asia.
Question: What’s a typical day like for you?
Answer: We start early and end late, lol. Typically, we are wrangling bees, kids, chickens, sheep, dogs, cats, and customers on any given day, so the energy levels are always through the roof! It has been a real challenge this past year with the pandemic. For example, Alberta kids are currently doing online learning, and this means that one of us must be home during the day to supervise and referee. This makes it an extra challenge to complete all the important tasks in each day.
Question: What is the most satisfying part of being a beekeeper?
Answer: For me, it is that low contented hum of fat, happy bees.
Question: How have things like new research, sustainability, innovation, and technology influenced your beekeeping?
Answer: Connie and I both took the Master Beekeeper’s Series from the University of Montana. The knowledge we gained made it possible for us to really dig into bee biology and Integrated Pest Management techniques. I developed a database-driven app that allows us to keep concise records on all aspects of the operation, from hive management to sales, to CFIA compliance. For example, we can dig information about colony health, queen performance, IPM results, feeding, and yard performance over the season and throughout the years. With that information we can constantly optimize our apiary to changing conditions.
Question: Finding great sources of nutritional forage for your bees is an integral part of crafting delicious, pure Alberta honey and supporting pollination and biodiversity. What are some of the strategies you use to when selecting apiary locations for your hives?
Answer: We want a consistent quality product, so we choose yards with similar floral sources for each lot (we typically produce three lots per year). For example, lots 1/3 are alfalfa in June/July and again in late August after Canola, and lot 2 is Canola in mid-July to mid-August. Site selection criteria also includes water availability, access, biosecurity concerns, and bears. The bears are a big issue up here; if a bear finds your yard (and they will), you can have a big expensive problem on your hands.
Question: What is one of the biggest challenges you feel the Alberta beekeeping industry is facing and what would you like to see changed?
Answer: I think the lack of packages and TFW’s in 2020 and 2021, both resulting from the current pandemic, has been the biggest challenge faced by Alberta beekeepers over the past couple of seasons. We are short around ½ million colonies this year alone, that will not be replaced by traditional means (packages) due to the current COVID crisis. Without these packages, the industry is going to suffer.
The package shortage can easily be mitigated by the opening of the CA/US border to colonies and nucs, and to this end we are working with our local MP (Chris Warkentin) and the ABC to try to get our Canadian/US border opened to US bee imports. Hopefully, common sense will prevail, and we can mitigate our shortage of bees by opening the border, even if it just temporary to start.
Question: With such a short beekeeping season in Alberta, how do you manage all the work required to support and maintain the health of your hives and harvest your honey?
Answer: We plan constantly before, during, and after the season. Every day is planned regarding inspections, feeding, management, production, harvest, and winter prep. We cannot do it all ourselves though, so we rely on local workers and TFW’s to fill any labor gaps. The experience and dedication of our workers is invaluable to our business. Injection of new and alternate beekeeping techniques allows us to constantly improve our operation
Question: What is the strangest beekeeping question you have ever been asked?
Answer: “Can’t you talk to the worker bees and convince them to spare the lives of the drones in the fall?”
Question: If you were to describe your honey in four words, what words would you use?
Answer: Gourmet, Unadulterated, Farm Fresh.
Question: What types of honey do you sell, and do you sell other bee related products?
Answer: We sell our pure creamed honey and flavored honeys such as cinnamon and hot pepper infused honey. Pollen and 100% beeswax candles were added to our line of products in 2020. All our products are sold through our retail partners, we don’t sell any honey at the farm gate.
Question: Where can people buy your honey and products?
Answer: Currently we sell our honey to retailers across Western Canada and internationally into Asia. We are in Sobey’s (Safeway, IGA, etc.), New Horizon Co-Op, Save On Foods, Freson Bros, and many mom/pop retailers such as Crooked Creek General Store, Bezanson General Store, and Lawrence Meats, throughout Alberta and BC. Additionally, in late 2020 we became the only Canadian honey producer with an import license for Indonesia, the gateway to the Orient.
Question: What are you happiest doing when you are not working?
Answer:Honestly, there is nothing I love more than being with my beautiful family. We have 5 kids ranging from 7 to 20 and they keep us busy and satisfied.
I spent most of my working years in the oil and gas industry. When it crashed out in 2015, it was the perfect time to develop a more balanced life for myself and my family by taking up beekeeping full time. I think it is beautiful that I am still working with hydrocarbons, but that these ones are actually benefitting the planet. How sweet it is!