In early September, summer flowers are still blooming in the South Cariboo, which means that honeybees stay hard at work. Alongside an expanse of alfalfa fields just north of the small community of Lac la Hache, beekeepers Rhonda and Dan Dobson check on their beehives, ensuring the colony has enough food to survive the cold, Cariboo winter ahead.
For a retired couple, the Dobsons are rather busy bees themselves. Along with other local beekeepers, the pair has recently become determined to help other Canadians gain awareness about a complicated problem facing honey producers and consumers alike.
From battling mites to navigating natural disasters, Canadian beekeepers are used to overcoming obstacles in their profession, but these days, another nefarious threat has local producers worried about the future of honey production in Canada. Honey fraud is on the rise.
Since June 2018, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has stopped 12,800 kilograms of adulterated honey—cut with fillers like corn syrup, rice, and beet sugars—from entering the Canadian market. In 2018, honey ranked third behind olive oil and milk as one of the most adulterated food products worldwide.
By participating in a large-scale data-collecting initiative, the Dobsons hope to contribute to a solution for honey fraud.
True Honey Buzz, a Canadian-based father-son initiative, is determined to keep honey real by obtaining honey samples from around the world to generate a database that can be used to combat fake honey fraud.
The sampling employed by True Honey Buzz differs from conventional testing and can determine how different flowers, soil, and weather affect a sample. The process is called Magnetic Resonance, and the Dobsons recently submitted their own raw honey for testing.
“We’re just one of many [participating],” said Rhonda. “They’re trying to get as many samples province-wide as they can.”
Dan and Rhonda hope to eventually obtain a report of their sample, which could include details such as flower origins and geographical location.
The Dobsons have been in the South Cariboo for about 30 years, raising beef and pork on a ten-acre property in Horse Lake. They always wanted to try beekeeping, which is a fairly expensive endeavour that they began about ten years ago.
“They’re like rabbits,” said Dan with a laugh. “They grow. We started with two hives.”
The pair now has 14 hives and sold a few hives earlier this year to keep their operation manageable. They belong to the Central Cariboo Beekeepers Association and the BC Honey Producers’ Association, too. Collaboration is actually a major part of their business. The bees do their part as well as the keepers, and having good connections helps.
Their Lac la Hache hives are located on Norm and Diane Wood’s ranch property in exchange for a few annual buckets of the good stuff, as Dan calls it.
Most people understand that nectar is the start of honey, but if too much nectar is left in the hive trays after extraction, the liquid ferments over winter and becomes difficult for the bees, or even the keepers, to clean.
On Sept. 3, the Dobsons visited their Lac la Hache hives to offer unused nectar to the bees, which they will eat from and store over the winter.
“They might as well eat it. There are still flowers around, but how many, we don’t know,” explained Rhonda. “It’s easy for them to collect. They just go right above and take it down to where they’re going to store it for the winter.”
The interaction benefits both the bees and their keepers, who are saved the job of cleaning out the sticky frames.
Production levels change annually, but on average, hives can produce from 70 to over 100 pounds each year. This year the Dobsons took off about 750 pounds from the hives, leaving between 60 and 70 pounds per hive for the bees’ winter supply.
The pair have eight production hives and one additional smaller hive in Lac la Hache, but they also have hives at home on No Bull Ranch in Horse Lake, near a large hayfield and many fruit trees.
In late September, the Dobsons move their hives home from Lac la Hache to Horse Lake and return the bees for nectar collection in April. Rhonda explained that having all 14 hives in one place year-long creates a challenge, as the bees are busy looking for food during the warm season.
In recent years, the Dobson’s hives faced two successive seasons of active wildfires.
During that time, the bees’ productivity went down.
“That next winter it was a very bad winter,” said Rhonda. “They just couldn’t make it for some reason.”
She isn’t sure if the smoke primarily damaged the bees, but it was definitely a factor during the South Cariboo’s tumultuous wildfire season of 2017: “I think we lost three-quarters of our hives that year.”
Last year, all of their hives survived the winter. During the colder months, each hive’s population drops to about 5,000 or 6,000. In the summertime, there could be around 50,000 bees per hive.
The Dobsons extract their own honey with a three-frame, hand-crank extractor. They are committed to producing a raw, unpasteurized product that offers a natural alternative to the variety of artificial sweeteners available on the market, but competing with fake honey producers is a major challenge.
“Other countries are buying that and selling it to us and selling it cheap. We can’t compete with that cheap price,” said Rhonda. “Ours is real honey and you know the amount of work that goes with keeping bees.”
The Dobson’s business, Sticky Fingers Honey, relies on a customer list to sell their product.
Their involvement in the True Honey Buzz testing initiative will help put South Cariboo beekeepers on the map, but their primary goal is to encourage other Canadians to do their research before purchasing tainted, fraudulent honey.