After spending 10 years working as a pilot, Carolyn Essaunce has traded in her life in the skies for a different set of wings.
Bees — and thousands of them. Currently owning 20 colonies — or roughly 1,000,000 bees — the 31-year-old Murrayville resident is part of a growing movement of millennials starting agribusinesses.
Despite having no background in farming, Essaunce created her company, The Honest to Goodness Farm Co., after the airline she worked for went bankrupt, and began operating a CSA at Hazelmere Organic Farm in Surrey. Soon after, she added beekeeping to her roster and launched a host-a-hive and mentorship program.
“I went from a job where I just sat for 14 hours a day to a job where I was outside and active, and I really, really liked it — it was really fulfilling,” she said. “Being a pilot is 99.9 per cent of the time very repetitive and very dull, so it’s fun to be out there growing things and getting my hands dirty. So I kind of just fell in love with it.”
Inside her new office — a five acre field of wildflowers in south Otter — Essaunce walks up to one of her hives, pumps in a few puffs of smoke, and calmly lifts a tray of hundreds of bees out with her bare hands.
The 50,000 insects that make up this colony have just returned from pollinating a blueberry field in Abbotsford, she explains, as she inspects the tray inches away from her face.
“I’m not a huge fan of pollination, it’s hard on the bees, and it’s a bit of a Band-Aid solution for biodiversity caused by these mono-crops,” she said.
“Blueberries are the main pollinators in the area, and it’s not a particularly nutritious source for the bees. So when you put your bees in the blueberry field, they’re not getting the most nutritious food they could be getting. Often you’ll see them fly over the blueberries to dandelions.
“But blueberry farmers will see a 20 per cent increase in yield if they have bees on their property. So it’s really important, it makes a really big difference.”
Despite increased demand for pollination services, Essaunce quickly discovered that beekeeping is not an easy industry to thrive in.
One of the greatest challenges Essaunce faces is keeping her colonies alive.
“Beekeeping is hard because there’s so much disease, so that’s the biggest issue. All the bees are dying. So basically, as a beekeeper, you’re just managing different diseases. You’re trying to keep your bees healthy, and when they get unhealthy, you’re trying to make them healthy again ,” she said.
“They don’t really need you, they shouldn’t need you, but because there’s so much disease in the Fraser Valley, you’re basically just a disease manager or doctor.”
This year’s winter was particularly hard on bees, Essaunce said, with many commercial beekeepers just recovering from their losses now.
Essaunce must do thorough inspections of her hives to look for different signs of disease, and then treat based on those signs. Oftentimes, beekeepers will use antibiotics to medicate and try to stop the spread of disease, but Essaunce prefers the natural way.
“I don’t use antibiotics. I have a hospital yard, so if my bees get sick, I shake them into new equipment and I put them in that yard, and if they die, they die. I have one colony killed from a brute disease this year. Just one died, which isn’t too bad.”
To house her bees, Essaunce currently leases a plot of fallow land from a private land owner, but not all have been as lucky as her.
“It’s so tough because everyone says, ‘Oh if you want land just move,’ which you can do. If you want to do cattle farming, or even beekeeping, you can do well in the interior. But, this (in the Lower Mainland) is the prime farmland, this is the prime climate. This is where everyone wants to live because of that.”
Ideally, Essaunce would like to see government owned land set aside for farmers, with cheaper, more affordable rent.
“No matter what’s important in your life — say you run a big business, or you’re a land developer, (or) you’re a billionaire — if you can’t eat, if there’s no food to put on your plate, your money’s worth nothing. Everybody should be worried about it. It’s a big issue. And quality of food, too. Getting your asparagus imported from wherever in December, it’s not the way we should be eating.”
Another issue discouraging beekeepers in particular, is that in some cases, farm statuses are being revoked, Essaunce said. Instead of giving credit for a full five acres of land, credit is only given for the few square feet taken up by the bee hives.
“All of this forage? What about that? What about the daisies and the blackberries? All the stuff that the bees need to eat? We can’t feed them sugar syrup. They need that nectar source,” she said.
“We need more plots of land like this — this is such a gift. It’s a plot of land, it’s privately owned, they don’t want to develop it. They are just keeping it as raw land. Every couple of weeks there’s a new bloom, so there’s always a nectar source for the bees. It’s so important.”
HONEYBEES & CIDER
To help raise awareness of bees and beekeeping, Essaunce is hosting educational events this summer.
Her next session, Honeybees & Cider Sunday, will take place at The Fraser Valley Cider Company in Langley on Sunday, Aug. 20 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Essaunce will be doing honeybee demos and teaching participants about pollination and bugs. Afterwards, they can head inside for some cider and charcuterie.
Both kids and adults are welcome to attend.
“It’s not a really sexy topic. People don’t want to hear about how we need to save the bugs, and how important it is for our food,” she said.
“But that is why we’re doing these events at cideries and stuff to try to get people out there. If they will come for a glass of cider, maybe they’ll listen to us speak about the bugs.”
Tickets for the event are: $5 for honeybee demonstrations; $4 for cider tastings; $5 for cider fights; $12 for charcuterie; $4 for kids soda flights; and free for kids honey sticks.