Elise Watson builds community through bees.
Eliese Watson is on a private property in the NW of the city, close to the Bow River. She releases some smoke towards a tiered hive box, with small honey bees (much smaller than the bumble bees you’ll find in your backyard) buzzing in and out, before lifting the lid to replace frames that had been extracted of their honey the day before. The box is labeled with the logo for the Ox and Angela restaurant, which is the proud owner of the bees, the hive, and any honey this particular colony of bees produces.
Watson has been running A.B.C. (Apiaries and Bees For Communities) for five years, and while bees are how she makes her living, she doesn’t bottle or sell honey. Instead, she’s an educator and a community builder who, along with the rest of her team at A.B.C., teaches new beekeepers the ins-and-outs of managing hives, while working with the larger urban community to create awareness of bees’ place in our ecology.
“The Bees 4 Communities project is about trying to offer people opportunities to get in and learn and build community,” Watson says. “Because you open up that beehive and you see a social environment of individuals working together in cohesion for generations in the future. And when they take from nature they give back in exponential form.”
If you eat out a lot in Calgary, you’ve probably tasted honey bees that Watson works with. Her Bees 4 Communities program pairs businesses like Calgary Food Tours, Una Pizza and Wine, Rouge, the Fairmont Palliser and the Hyatt Regency, to name a few. The hives are placed on private property, owned by bee-friendly people who want the ecological benefits of having the bees on their land and near their gardens. From there, Watson and her team care for the bees and harvest the honey. The businesses receive “report cards,” blog posts, and any honey that their bees produce. As part of the deal, Watson uses their hives to run beekeeping education and apprenticeship courses. Everyone in the equation — the businesses, the landowners, and Watson’s business — wins.
“What makes it a community based project is that these hives are used as educational tools,” explains Watson. “They’re placed where I want them to go and they’re always the best honey-producing areas I can find, locations that allow for us to have some groups to come, I’ve had30 or 40 people here before. Places where they have no quarrel with us bringing people here.”
The Bees 4 Communities partnerships are only a small part of what A.B.C. do. Watson and her crew also hold a number of courses, Hive2Hive bicycle tours where participants can bike to the program’s various hive sites, Field Days (fun, affordable afternoons out where participants can take a peek at what beekeeping entails), a more intensive mentorship program, and more. Watson and her crew also offer private hive management for both residential and commercial clients, which fall outside of her community-driven Bees 4 Communities program.
Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel
While Watson’s business has a lot of different projects on the go, the driving force behind all of them is the same: Watson’s mission to spread the word about beekeeping and ensure that everyone she works with manages their bees in a responsible way.
“You’re basically overseeing an entire civilization,” Watson points out. “Each hive is its own civilization. As a beekeeper, my responsibility is to make sure that these bees survive the season, to manage and control disease, and because honey bees are non-native to North America, for us to ensure their survival and propagation. It’s really imperative that we’re honourable to their life cycle and behavioural patterns. And also that we do our best to understand, observe, and then act.”
With urban beekeeping on the rise, beekeeping becoming an increasingly popular hobby for food enthusiasts (you can even buy beekeeping gear through Williams-Sonoma), and Alberta reportedly being the fifth largest honey producing region in the world, Watson is seeing an increase in the number of beekeepers, be they hobbyists, small batch commercial producers, and businesses that keep bees either to use the honey in restaurants or to give as gifts to their clientele. Watson says the practices of these small-scale beekeepers — who tend to avoid antibiotics and chemicals and take a more holistic approach to bee management — are influencing the behaviour and philosophies of larger honey producers. She’s also seeing that keeping bees often changes the way her clients approachthe world around them, both in the way they look at issues of sustainability and their community.
“Beekeeping is the most political thing that you can do,” Watson says. “Becoming a beekeeper you become aware of all of these socio-political issues that you previously ignored or weren’t aware of. And then you start to have an opinion. And when people have an opinion, they want to share it.”
Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel
Elizabeth Chorney-Booth is a Calgary-based freelance writer, and co-founder/co-editor of RollingSpoon.com. She enjoys exploring the connection between music and food through interviews with musicians and chefs.