By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Every time you open a hive, the bees are trying to tell a story and a good beekeeper can interpret that story and give them what they need.
So says Colette Mesher, sleeveless and wearing shorts, who quietly enters the little grotto where three of her 40 beehives are kept. She’s about to read the story of these hives. Without gloves, she carefully smokes the hive then lifts the lid and inspects each frame.
“What is the story of this hive,” I ask?
“I’m asking this hive if you are full of honey, did I make a mistake not giving you a honey super this year,” says Collette. “They are telling me they are ready for winter and all is well.”
Colette has been reading honeybee stories for many years and is using her accumulated knowledge from her past jobs in a new role as the Technology Transfer Program Lead for the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA). This new job involves research and education, testing new products, supporting beekeepers and helping bee breeders develop new honey bee genetics for such attributes as disease resistance. It’s a role Colette is very excited about as she balances time between it and managing her own honey bee business, Miel Rebel Honey, which incorporates two passions — beekeeping and horses — as her hives are placed on horse farms.
“There is so much land and flowers and water around horses that bees and horses naturally go together,” explained Colette. Hives are not placed IN the pastures. Instead, she finds ideal areas outside the fence for the bees to live. One would think horses would steer clear of these areas but Colette said the opposite is often true. Flies and other biting insects tend to avoid the flight path zones of the bees and horses find respite in these areas from pesky insects.
In return, honey is a natural healer. If a horse gets scratched or grazed, honey will drain the moisture out of the wound. If the horse licks the area, it’s only ingesting honey instead of medication.. Honey works so well for this application that Colette now markets Horse Honey as a product to horse farmers.
The hives we are visiting today are at a horse farm near Erin in Wellington County and Colette is happily teaching me about bee behaviour. As a former educator at the University of Guelph, teaching is a passion for Colette and allows her to diversify her operation because 40 hives are not a profitable honey business.”People do not value honey,” explains Colette. “Beekeepers cannot sell their honey at a Costco price.” The price of honey, in relation to the skill and investment required, is low. In Ontario, 200 hives could create a profitable business but diversification into selling nukes (nucleus colony of bees to start a hive), or teaching or offering tours is often needed.
Her focus with Miel Rebel Honey is health, not honey. Colette feels her business is a success when her bees are happy and healthy, rather than how large the honey crop is.
Profitability and a love of teaching is what led her to develop the bee and horse connection, allowing her to create a unique marketing strategy that includes tours, value-added products and beekeeper support. In a normal year, she would attend fall fairs, farm markets, tasting events while offering tours to observe hives. “When I pull up a frame with a queen, people get really excited,” she says. She has also taught new beekeepers, both urban and rural (which require different strategies) how to manage their hives. The pandemic had an immediate impact on the teaching/training component so the job with the Ontario Beekeepers Association came at an ideal time for her business and her personal need to learn and grow.
Colette has extensive knowledge about working with bees after first becoming a marine and freshwater biologist. She has a Masters and phD in Marine and Estuary Ecology and has worked in Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and the Drake Passage. However, she gets terribly seasick so following her marine adventures, a job at the University of Guelph seemed ideal. She was trying to get students excited about freshwater mussels but kept hearing from them how keen they were about the school’s honeybee course.
“So I took up honeybees!” Discovering a new passion, Colette quit her job at the university and went to work for a commercial beekeeper. The pay cut stung but the learning gave her a buzz. She was working with bees every day including handling queens and splitting hives. A stint in a beekeeping supply store followed and she purchased her first hive in 2015 and soon launched her own business.
“I don’t tend to do things by halves,” laughs Colette.
As she was already coaching horseback riders and had many contacts with horse farm owners, placing the beehives on horse farms was a natural partnership. Plus, she had taken a starter course at the Guelph Wellington Business Centre which encouraged her to develop a marketing strategy. Bees and horses make for an interesting combination and a striking logo, which was developed by her sister, an architect.
Colette’s original goal was to become a commercial beekeeper with 50 hives. She grew to 40 when the pandemic hit and with her new job at the OBA, she decided to downsize to 20 hives so she could manage both roles. Some of the hives are part of her Hive Host program where for various reasons, families want a hive or two on their property, but don’t want to manage the hives.
Backyard beekeeping is really taking off in Ontario. “We expected interest in bees to go down but it keeps rising,” she says. Part of her role as the Technical Transfer Program Lead is to teach new beekeepers how to manage their hives. Her advice for brand new beekeepers is this:
• Place hives in a place that is safe, convenient and practical, particularly if you live in a town or have close neighbours. “Bees will die in people’s pools, or neighbours may be scared of bees so before an inspector gets called, talk to your neighbours and have a backup plan where you can move the bees if it doesn’t work out,” says Colette. Giving away lots of honey to neighbours also helps in these situations.
• Educate yourself. “I thought with 10 years experience in bees I would know everything but I’m still learning,” says Colette, who is now in the second year of a master beekeeping program.
• Dedicate time. “You have to commit to setting aside time for your bees. Although it is less time than spent with a cat or a dog, bees do require attention.” She recommends checking the hive every 10 to 14 days.
• Join your local beekeeping association for advice and support.
• Colette really LIKES bees. She finds them personable and says it is exciting to develop a relationship with a creature so different from herself. “I know each hive individually,” she says. To keep the relationship current, she takes videos and writes notes after each inspection.
• She also likes to get creative and crafty. Colette has a range of intriguing honey-based products including flavoured honey, beeswax wraps and candles.
• Like her bees, Colette is a lady with a lot of productive energy!◊