Bzzy producing organic honey,
full swarm ahead
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY SARAH DOBEC
This is a cautionary tale for anyone considering raising honeybees as a hobby: it might just evolve into a business.
Dan Garyfalakis and his wife Nina met in Switzerland in the early 1980s while Dan was travelling through Europe. One fated evening he wandered into a pub and overheard a young Swiss woman speaking English to the musicians. She captivated him – and he must have captivated her – because she followed him home for Christmas and the rest is history. They discovered the Hockley Valley, about fifty minutes north of Toronto, on a day trip out of the city, where they were then living and working. The area reminded Nina of Switzerland, so in 1984 they settled in the valley and have raised their three children, Rubi, Ben and Zoe, there.
Six years ago, Dan gave Nina two beehives as a gift. The hives reminded her of home and of her grandfather, her childhood hero, bringing her back to a time in her youth when life was simple and carefree. When the hives expanded (and with a good queen, they can expand by a thousand bees a day), they learned to split them, and the two hives turned to three, then seven. You can see where this is going.
Their first customers were friends and family, the lucky recipients of the hobby-hive honey. Curious as to how good their honey was, Dan entered it into the Dufferin County Beekeepers Association competition and it won first place in every category. The judge was so impressed that he took their honey and entered it into the highest level of province-wide competition at the Ontario Beekeepers Association, where it won a First Place. Apparently this hobby was true talent; what option did they have other than to give it a go? Dan and Nina were adamant, however, on doing it their way using traditional methods that would not sacrifice the quality of the honey.
Like so many commodities in our food system, there are ways to cut corners in honey production. Much of the commercial honey available to us is a side business to large corporate agriculture where the bees feed on monocultures of one crop, usually canola. Once a delicious byproduct of Mother Nature, we have now learned to manipulate honey production to increase yields – sacrificing quality and taste. Another hefty proportion of the product on store shelves in Canada is local honey blended with imported Chinese and/or Thai honey (which can contain known carcinogens) that is packaged and labelled here by Canadian companies, giving it the appearance of a 100-percent-local product. (Such blends may contain up to 49 percent imported honey.)
Dan and Nina are not interested in cutting corners; there is a reason the honey from Hockley Valley Honey Farm wins trophies. An engineer and a handy guy, Dan builds all of the hive frames himself, using untreated wood and beeswax components; there is no plastic in these hives. The bees are fed honey, not sugar water, and their natural environment is a rich diversity of wildflowers and tree blossoms. Their location in the Hockley Valley has enabled Dan and Nina to secure pockets of unspoiled land, free from conventional agriculture, and thus have their product certified organic. The government apiary inspector says they have the nicest hives he has ever seen.
The couple hand-uncap each comb frame without heat and cold spin it in a vintage 1936 extractor that Dan found and rebuilt with stainless steel. Nina refers to honey making as an art and this is what sets them apart from the mass-produced product on supermarket shelves. Their objective is to make a premium organic product. It is unpasteurized, unfiltered, and as natural as it gets. They jokingly suggest that it is not a business, but rather a passion that barely pays for their labour.
In fact, the odds are against Dan and Nina. By choosing organic quality over large quantity they are more susceptible to the many problems associated with bees today. The collapse of the honeybee populations has become front-page news and could have severe implications for the human population. Bees and insects pollinate an estimated 30 percent of our food, a job no human or machine could ever replace. American Foulbrood is a common disease that can spread from one hive to another, knocking out an entire bee population. Strict organic standards dictate that Dan and Nina cannot treat their hives with antibiotics, the usual treatment. This is good for the consumer but makes honey production more difficult for the couple. Another common hive invader is the mite. Dan and Nina use organic methods to reduce the mites but the mites can carry disease and live longer than the bees.
In some ways, Hockley Honey is an experiment to see if traditional honey production is still possible in this day and age. Their yields are half those of typical commercial producers, true to the old adage of quality over quantity. They are breaking new ground with Old World ways but most of the experts in the field tell them they are likely to fail. Dan is inspired and motivated by the commonly held belief that they won’t make it. He likes a challenge.
With the product as pure as it is, Hockley Honey offers all the wonderful medicinal properties of old-time honey. Nina talks of customers who have reduced or eliminated seasonal allergies by consuming their honey: a mild inoculation of local pollens helps the body build immunity. It is also an excellent wound healer and digestive bacterial cleanser, with rich antibiotic and antibacterial properties. You can keep a jar of this honey in your kitchen and in your medicine cabinet.
Hockley Honey is available in four varieties: liquid white, liquid golden, white creamed, and a delicious blend of white creamed and cinnamon. Nina also makes lip balm with honey and their awardwinning beeswax. In 2009, they won the prize for best beeswax (display) at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.
When asked what they have learned from the bees, Nina replies, “That we know very little; that science is limited and creation is amazing and it’s a miracle how it all works.” Despite the challenges and the naysayers, Dan and Nina are encouraged by the people who understand what they are trying to do and who faithfully stand by them. They proudly state that they have never heard of anyone not liking their honey. They don’t need to promote their honey; it sells itself.
Hockley Valley Honey Farm, Orangeville, Ontario. www.hockleyhoney.com (519) 941-9465
Sarah Dobec is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist living in Toronto. She is a writer, an educator and a consultant with a keen interest in the connection between whole, local foods and their impact on our health and wellness.