The bee biz: ’keepers needed, for the love of blueberries

Students pay $11,990 tuition for commercial course, launched at KPU last January

KPU student Casey Aelbers (second from left) and other beekeepers in action.

CLOVERDALE — John Gibeau has made it his business to tell others about the business of bees.

Honeybees play a crucial role in the production of many crops, including the blueberries grown in Surrey and surrounding areas, yet certified beekeepers are a relative rarity locally.

That’s where Gibeau comes in, as instructor of the unique commercial beekeeping program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU).

He’s also president of The Honeybee Centre, located at the corner of Fraser Highway and 176th Street in Cloverdale. There, on a back lot, construction of a 2,400-square-foot storage facility for the KPU program is nearing completion, for use by students.

“They have 300 of their own beehives, so they need a place to put their empty boxes, equipment and all that,” Gibeau explained.

The beekeeping-studies classroom is at KPU’s tech/trades complex on 180th Street.

In its first year, which began last January, the 11-month course has involved 11 students, and the second year will begin this coming January with 16 more students, Gibeau (pictured) told the Now.

But those numbers are nowhere near enough to meet the local need for commercial beekeepers.

“Our main business (at The Honeybee Centre) is to rent bees to blueberry growers, and we’re short between a thousand and 1,500 (colonies) every year,” Gibeau said. “Even with the beekeepers like myself and others in the Lower Mainland, we’re short despite the fact that we bring in 20 or 30,000 colonies from Alberta to satisfy the demand here – and we’re still short.

“A program like this, the purpose is to get enough bees and beekeepers to (meet) the demand for blueberry pollination, and right now there’s a shortfall of about, oh, something like 40 or 50,000 colonies. It’s a huge shortfall, massive.”

To learn about honeybee botany, queen rearing, the business of beekeeping and related topics, students pay $11,990 tuition for the course at KPU.

“During the four months of practicum (in spring and summer), a student will make that money back – the tuition washes,” Gibeau emphasized.

“The way the program works is, the first four months are spent in the classroom, from January to April and also part of May, and then (students) do four months in the field and then a final two months back in the classroom. They come out of the program with that (wage earned during practicum) and the knowledge to run 300 beehives.”

North Deltan Casey Aelbers, 22, enrolled as a student in the program with hopes of owning her own business. She also wants to use her new knowledge to travel the world educating others about honeybees and how they are impacted by the human population.

“Through our everyday actions,” Aelbers told KPU’s communications department, “we affect (honeybees) and the ever-changing environment we live in. I hope to travel throughout North America and overseas learning the different ways bees affect mankind and to master enough of the art of beekeeping in order to teach it and continue educating those interested.”

Fellow student Christine Pawsey, 51, of Surrey, hopes to one day support her family through commercial beekeeping.

“I realized it (beekeeping) could be a career, not just a hobby,” said Pawsey, who has already acquired 20 hives while attending KPU.

The next information session for KPU’s beekeeping program is on Thursday, Aug. 11 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at The Honeybee Centre, with the added attraction of a bee-beard demo. Similar events will be held on Aug. 17 at Vancouver’s Croatian Cultural Centre, Sept. 21 at KPU Langley and Oct. 15 at The Honeybee Centre. Details can be found online at Kpu.ca/cps/commercial-beekeeping, or call 604-599-2996.

“We’re looking to fill those last three or four spots come January,” said Gibeau, who first learned the trade from his father four decades ago in Alberta.

“It’s a good business,” he said, “and there’s a lot of interest in it right now.”

tom.zillich@thenownewspaper.com

 

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