Billy Bee and Doyon – Canadian Honey Forever

Professional Canadian beekeepers know the names of honey packers Jack Grossman and Paul Doyon. Jack started Billy Bee Honey; Paul’s label was regional (mostly Quebec) and his product was/is called Miel Doyon. During the 1970s and 1980s, I sold honey to both of them. I shipped semi-loads of premium, water-white, 15.5% moisture alfalfa-sourced honey from Val Marie, Saskatchewan. The business transaction was a phone call from me, an agreement on price, and then an 18-wheeler would show up, load up, and drive off.  I didn’t even get a signed bill of lading. A few weeks later, a cheque would arrive in the mail.

I never met Paul, but I saw Jack at a bee meeting. My favourite story about Jack was that he famously carried note cards to remind himself about different beekeepers. A Saskatchewan beekeeper friend – Don Peer – once asked Jack what was written on the Don Peer card. An address? Honey quality? Price last offered? Jack showed Don his card. All it said was, “Doesn’t need money.”  I was about 20 when I heard that story and it taught me a lot. There is power in those three words.  Doesn’t need money.  I tried to run my business that way – I wanted to never be desperate, never broke, never need money. The expression also means something else. Don Peer was well-off, but not wealthy – after all, he was a beekeeper. But he lived and ran his business in a way that he didn’t get into a jam with cash.

The Billy Bee man, Jack Grossman, was from Toronto. After serving in World War II, he kept a few hives behind his house. He packed honey in his garage and got into some stores. To meet demand in Ontario, he bought honey from other beekeepers. Business grew. His reputation for fairness and timely payment made him popular with beekeepers. His consistent, high-quality honey made his Billy Bee brand a big seller across Canada.  Paul and George Doyon started their packing operation in 1927. I suspect that their story is similar because that’s the way you build a business. Honesty, consistency, fairness.

Those men grew old. Jack Grossman passed away, age 92, on this day (April 27) in 2009. In 2008, the international food packer McCormick & Company bought Billy Bee for 75 million dollars.  With that purchase, McCormick got $37 million in annual sales plus the Doyon(R) label which Billy Bee had previously acquired. I’m sure that you know McCormick – they specialize in spices and are probably best known for their black pepper. It’s a big company. $37 million in sales is round-off error compared to McCormick’s $4.4 billion revenue last year.

As beekeepers, we depended on the Doyon and Billy Bee sales. They bought Canadian honey; sold Canadian honey. In recent years, stories of McCormick importing some foreign honey for jars of Billy Bee were disappointing, but not unexpected. Honey is cheaper when it comes from countries with lower wages and possibly lax sanitary requirements. Imported honey can be good quality (though there are some horror stories), but supporting Canadian beekeepers is the right thing to do.  Besides, our beekeepers use some of their honey money to buy McCormick’s paprika, cinnamon, and ground black pepper. Keeping the money at home allows Canadian beekeepers to buy McCormick products and to keep other Canadians working – building their shops, repairing their vehicles, making their skidoos. But, most important, honey produced in Canada can be readily inspected, traced back to source, and must reach high quality standards to satisfy customers.

So, today’s news – McCormick is committed to using 100% Canadian honey from June of this year and forever after. This is met with cheers and thanks from beekeepers and consumers. Here is part of the news story:

McCormick & Co. says Billy Bee and Doyon products containing all-Canadian honey will start appearing on store shelves in June, while the Billy Bee organic variety will arrive before the end of the year.

Previously Billy Bee products contained at least 85 per cent of the sweetener sourced from Canadian beekeepers, something that has been a source of frustration for the country’s honey industry as some beekeepers say they produce enough to negate the need for any imports.

Andrew Foust, the company’s general manager of Canadian operations, says Canadians have expressed a desire for made-in-Canada honey and the shift is responding to consumer preference.

He said the shift won’t come with a boost in price.

The company will also participate in the True Source Honey certification program, an industry-led effort to ensure the product is ethically and legally sourced.

This is big news.  McCormick’s Billy Bee and Doyon brands make up about 60% of all branded honey sales in Canada.  This story also shows the power of consumer activism. As Mr Foust said above, “Canadians have expressed a desire for made-in-Canada honey and the shift is responding to consumer preference.”   Way to go, consumers!

Ah, yes – this is sitting on my own dining table!
Great squeeze bee, eh?

Posted in History, Honey | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Burt’s Cabin Tour

Burt Shavitz, of Burt’s Bees, died two years ago. A photographer (for Life and Time) from Manhattan, he settled near Bangor, Maine, in the 1960s. There, he discovered beekeeping. Although Maine is one of the worst places in North America to keep bees (limited forage, cool temperatures, harsh winters), his beekeeping nevertheless led to a candle business with his eventual partner Roxanne Quimby. It was mostly she who developed the wildly successful business which was purchased in 2007 by Clorox for about one billion dollars. By then, Burt Shavitz was largely out of the game. But his image (and the myth of the man) have continued to sell the Burt’s Bees’ line of creams and balms and healthy beehive by-products.

The Burt Shavitz myth is more than an advertising gimmick. He was a real beekeeper, a real granola-sucking backwoods-cabin sort of guy. However, when Burt’s Bees general manager Jim Geikie tells us, “Burt was a living embodiment of our purpose to connect people to the wisdom, power and beauty of nature,” it does border on a myth in the making. For a realistic sense of the complicated Mr Shavitz, I suggest Jody Shapiro’s documentary, Burt’s Buzz. It does justice to Burt’s life while exposing some of the petty things that actually make him likeable and connect him to us, the non-mythologized. Watch the film and you’ll see what I mean.  Here’s a YouTube link to the documentary.

Meanwhile, the tall tale continues with the Burt’s Bees company’s release of a 360 Experience that “Takes You Inside Founder Burt’s 300-Square-Foot Cabin” where  “There isn’t even an alarm clock”.  Oh my. No alarm clock. How primitive. Maybe he used the reminder feature on his I-Phone.  Anyway, for those of us who do not own a 300-square foot cabin in a Maine forest, here’s Burt’s Bees’ invitation to voyeurism. Look around and enjoy the cracklin’ fresh atmosphere of a fireplace which generates its homey sound on a repeating 61-second audio loop. It would add to the surrealism if the 360 Experience mentioned that Burt’s cabin is no longer in the woods in Maine, but was moved to Burt’s Bees corporate headquarters at the American Tobacco Campus in North Carolina.

Here’s a link to Burt’s Nature, the 360 Experience of Burt’s cabin/monument. If you feel creeped out as you wander through the mythical dead man’s mythical Maine house, you’re not the only one who finds this ‘experience’ eerily similar to a Rod Sterling Twilight Zone episode. Don’t misunderstand me – Burt Shavitz was an extraordinary man. Ex-military, acclaimed photographer, beekeeper. But I think he’d agree – give him a rest.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Hive Products, People, Strange, Odd Stuff | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Supporting “Painting the Bees”

A bee mural, painted by Matthew Willey.
His goal: Ecology awareness through 50,000 painted bees.

It’s pretty hard to pry money out of my pockets.  Unless you’ve got something really great going on that can use a little support.

The Good of the Hive is one of the worthy ones. It aims to bring awareness of bees, ecology, and environment to the public’s eye with outstanding portraits of bees at work and play. This is being accomplished by the production of huge outdoor murals. The artist’s goal:  to paint 50,000 bees over his lifetime project!

I wrote about Matthew Willey’s brilliant project back in February. He told me that there would be a small crowd-funding campaign in the spring. It’s on now and there are still a few days to contribute – plus there are some outstanding gifts you may qualify for. I couldn’t resist the “World Bees” Poster. It doesn’t show the range of Apis dorsata or Apis mellifera scutellea – that would miss the point. This is art. Instead, Matthew has chosen to draw the continents as honeycombs and populate them with artsy bees. It’s a grand concept that reminds us that bees are the world. We – you, me, the bee – are in this together. Here’s what my new World Bees poster will look like:

And this, close-up:

There’s less than a week left in this fund-raiser campaign. But that’s still plenty of time to send a little love over to The Good of the Hive.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Ecology, Outreach, Save the Bees | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Have These Kids Found a Way to Kill Varroa?

Why not just brush off the mites?

I am a skeptic when it comes to ‘miracle’ cures to fight varroa. I think that the various expensive heat/sauna systems are a waste of time and money. A lot of natural treatments (icing/powdered sugar; essential oils; screened bottoms) are marginally helpful – they won’t keep a hive alive, but they might delay the funeral. When I heard about a system developed by some youngsters in Spain, I was not quick to don my credulity cloak.  I’m not sold on their invention, but I won’t disparage it outright.

Here’s the story. A group of young scientists have engineered a 7-mm-wide beehive entrance reducer outfitted with tiny brushes. As bees return to their hive, they maneuver through the little doorway while brushes rub varroa mites off their backs. Mites are removed outside the hive. The student-scientists used a  3d printer to make the little plastic entrances. The youths, aged 14 to 16, live in Valencia, Spain. This summer, their device will compete at the FIRST LEGO Asia Pacific Open in Sydney, Australia. Presently, a crowd-funding campaign is raising the money to take them from Europe to Australia to participate.

Will it work? Perhaps. I’m sure that you can think of reasons it won’t. Even if some varroa are scraped off, it only takes one lucky mite to colonize a hive. Mites which do fall off could later crawl into the hive – they live a few days without a bee host and they are mobile. A side issue is the restricted entrance which reduces air flow and forager traffic. On the other hand, the inventors point out that their narrow entrance blocks wasps. Unchecked, wasps destroy colonies so this is a welcome side-benefit. Concerns about air flow and traffic control issues might be alleviated if beekeepers use a large number of the tiny doors on each hive.

The idea is cheap and it might reduce mites. I don’t think it will save honey bees from succumbing to varroa, but it could be one more weapon in the beekeeper’s toolkit. What do you think?

These are the kids with the 3d-printed mite brush.  Support them here.

Posted in Beekeeping, Diseases and Pests, Save the Bees, Science, Tools and Gadgets | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

March for Science (revisited)

So, how’d the March for Science go?  I’ll admit that it went better than I expected. My fear (expressed in Friday’s blog) that the effort to support science would be hijacked by a political agenda was only about one-third true. I looked at dozens of photos from the March. Signs for science trumped anti-Trump signs about two to one.

America has 21.5 million university grads with science degrees. About 12 million actually work in science while the rest are retired or resigned to spend their working days doing more lucrative non-science stuff (lawyers, doctors, administrators).  Of the several million with ‘science’ degrees who work as ‘scientists’ I would guess only 5 to 10 percent participated in the March.   I’m a geophysicist. Though I wasn’t tinkering with seismic waves this weekend, I was tied up teaching a group of 20 beekeeping enthusiasts some finer points of the economics of apiculture. I suspect that a lot of other scientists were dissimilarly engaged and, like me, were not marching.

Many (or most) of those supporting science on Saturday are non-scientists who either used the occasion to voice a political statement and/or they wanted to recognize that experimentation, observation, and deduction make healthier lives – and a better place to live our lives. One of my sisters marched in San Diego (some of her pictures are below) while other friends walked in D.C., Seattle, and Denver.

Here’s a bit of a photo essay that captures some of the weekend’s messages. Although at least a third of the messages were heavily political (and some were even anti-science), most were on target. You’ll even see a couple of placards prompted by concern for the plight of bees.


Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Friends, Outreach, Save the Bees, Science | Tagged , | 3 Comments

March on Down?

This weekend, we celebrate Earth Day. And why not? There are official days for glazed spiral ham (April 15), chocolate covered cashews (April 21!), and bee sting enthusiasts (March 30). So, Earth should have a day of celebration. As a professional geophysicist, I’d like more knowledge, interest, and respect for our grand old blue dot and her interconnected systems.  But this year, Earth Day will be combobulated with a March for Science.

The Science March website says, “Science isn’t Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative.” True. Scientific discovery means testing ideas and observing outcomes. Making guesses about what’s going to happen before an experiment is conducted. Attempting to separate one’s preconceived from one’s observed reality. That should be non-political. So, why is the March for Science convoluting support for science with the civil rights of marginalized people and attacking science for past failings (under-representing minorities, eugenics, unethical medical experiments)? A few weeks ago, The March declared that ISIS represents a marginalized people. Good God, one would hope so – the more marginalized, the better. The March has since retracked its implied sympathy for terrorists. But the fact that the idea would even surface within a group marching for science advocacy is discouraging, to say the least.

Officially, March for Science says it’s “a celebration of our passion for science and the many ways science serves our communities and our world.” Although ostensibly non-political, it’s apparent that the march grew from justified concern over the new president’s obvious disdain for science. Had it stopped with that symbolic (and subtle) political statement, I’d be writing quite a different piece here today.

Endangered rusty patch bumblebee
(Credit: USGS)

Among the many gaffes already committed by Trump’s regime, we see muzzles on scientists, refutation of climate science, dismembering of environmental protection (EPA was started by Richard Nixon), and the delay of adding a fuzzy bumblebee to endangered status – not because its numbers have recovered, but because the cuddly as kittens creatures are apparently among animals not important enough to be urgently protected.

Entomologists will be marching. They are likely not marching in solidarity for marginalized terrorists. Instead, they are worried about the unhealthy, politicized (from both sides), under-funded state of science in today’s polarized atmosphere. It takes a lot of patrons to support research on varroa mites’ virus transmissions within a bee colony. Beekeepers don’t have ten million dollars to outfit gene sequencing gizmos, sterile incubators, and extensive apiaries dedicated to honey bee research. This takes a concerned public willing to ante up the cash that will eventually win the pot of tools that keeps pollinators alive.

Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin both had state of the art science labs in their homes. In the 18th century, their equipment could be bought with a few months’ wages. A lot could be learned from a kite, a key, and a thunderstorm. Even then, however, the new American government was allocating money to universities for ‘improvement of agriculture and animal husbandry’ and for pure research such as excavating the massive trove of mastodon bones at Bone Lick, Kentucky, in 1805.

Science has been the backbone of America’s strength and its progressive growth for centuries. If you are participating in the March for Science, you are showing commendable support for science and reason. Go ahead and wave your banner proudly – as long as the words on the banner convey support for science and not some confusing identity politics message. Make it a march for science. Something that conservative Christian scientists (and there are some) as well as rationalists can support.  Then go back next week and march for greater equality and more diverse representation in science and society.  If you can’t keep politics separate from science support, you risk alienating your potential allies.  Saturday’s Earth Day March for Science should be a march for science.

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Outreach, Science | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

World’s Sweetest Honey

The April 2017 issue of the world’s best bee magazine (American Bee Journal) published a piece written by your favourite bee-blogger (me).  My article is called America’s Sweetest Honey. In it, I describe why honey from different flowers tastes different. Ultimately, I show that some honey is sweeter than other varieties. With that in mind, my story tracks down America’s sweetest honey.

If America has a candidate for its sweetest honey, then so does the world. I presented a talk here in Calgary on exactly that:  The World’s Sweetest Honey.  Well, of course, I don’t know for sure which jar of honey is going to be the sweetest. I’d have to taste them all to be certain.  But the journey of discovering some likely candidates is worth the effort.

Most beekeepers don’t know a lot about what’s in the honey they sell, so here’s a chance to learn about your product. Over the next month or so, I’ll write about some of the things every beekeeper should understand about the stuff they sell. For now, here’s a video of my January talk.  It’s long. But at the end of the hour, you’ll know what you need to know about the stuff inside a honey jar. You’ll even gently learn some organic chemistry.

Posted in Honey, Movies, Science | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Humungus Bee Meeting

Liz Goldie, front right and Medhat Nasr, front left,  addressing the capacity turnout for the monthly Calgary and District Beekeepers’ Association.

I thought that there can’t possibly be so many people curious about beekeeping.  But there are.  It’s great to see lots of folks interested in bees, ecology, the environment, and the sport of beekeeping. But the numbers amaze me.

New beekeepers keep signing up. In the fall, I helped teach an introductory beekeeping course which had 60 Calgary-area folks enrolled. During the 2-day course, I asked how many of the 60 already had bees. No one. None. Nary and not a single hand up. This spring, all will likely be beekeepers.  And so it grows.

Last week, the Calgary and District Beekeepers held its monthly meeting. I’m not a director, executive, nor was I a speaker at last night’s program. Instead, I had a chance to relax, listen,  learn, and count bees’ wings. I sat with 180 (!!) other beekeepers in attendance. Holy bee smokers.

Our keynote speaker was Dr Medhat Nasr. He’s our provincial chief apiarist. He has the unenviable task of satisfying the beekeeping needs of the keepers of 310,000 colonies of Alberta bees in the most productive honey jurisdiction in North America.

Dr Medhat Nasr, Alberta’s chief bee scientist.

A few highlights from Medhat’s presentation.

Biggest change:

Soon, antibiotics will no longer be sold alongside hive tools and smokers. This is a federal law – not specific to just Alberta. It affects beekeepers across Canada. In fact, this new regulation will help Canada align with American rules as well as the statutes in Europe, Latin America, and most of the rest of the world.  Meds will need to be prescribed by vets. Diseases such as AFB and nosema and pests like varroa will need to be active and diagnosed before magic powder is dusted around the hive. This change recognizes that indiscriminate use of medications reduces their potency and promotes evolved resistance in pests.

Our chief apiary inspector has already met with veterinarian groups to help design a course of study for future grads which will include bee disease studies. This is new for us. Although honey bee health has long been part of the curriculum elsewhere in the world, North American vet schools  are just beginning to teach it here.

Moving bees:

Winter: Alberta, top; BC, bottom

British Columbia is much milder than Alberta in the winter. Rather than letting bees sit on the frozen prairies, about 15% of Alberta hives spend the winter near the Pacific coast. An inaccurate contrast is illustrated in the photos to your left.

In the winter, it’s cool and rainy in BC’s lower mainland (the area broadly around Vancouver) but whenever the sun comes out, bees gather pollen. In Alberta in winter, whenever the sun comes out, bees cower ever more deeply in the dark nethers of their wrapped snow-clad hives. In BC, bees build up early, nucs can be spun off in April, and sometimes cash can be earned hauling bees into apple orchards. Bees in BC survive winter better and increases are made (rather than losses taken). However, BC’s milder weather and longer seasons can spread pests.

The chief apiary inspectors of each province enforce biosecurity rules for provincial bee movement. Before bringing nucs or hives from Saskatchewan or British Columbia, the following criteria need to be met:

Bees must be inspected in the originating province;
An import permit from the government of Alberta must be issued by Dr Nasr;
Colonies free of American Foul Brood;
Colonies must have varroa counts below 3%;
There must be no hive beetles;
Importing beekeeper needs an inspection certificate.


Alberta beekeepers continue to import bees from abroad. Although valiant attempts have been made to develop a home-grown queen and nuc business, Canadian breeders continue to sell fewer than five percent of the queens sold in the country. The rest come in from Chile, Hawaii, and New Zealand.

One Alberta beekeeper imports tens of thousands of packages from New Zealand. At over $200 each, it starts to look like real money. One the companies that collects a bit of that Canadian cash is Arataki bee farm in New Zealand. This video gives you an idea of what’s involved in the production and shipment of bees from the other side of the world.


Medhat told us that anti-AFB antibiotics have not been used at the government research apiaries for years. This is certainly encouraging. While we hear about resistant American Foul Brood, we also learn that bees can be kept in Alberta without AFB medications. It’s a lot harder to monitor foulbrood and clean up infections than it is to dump medications into the brood nest, but I’m sure we will learn to keep our bees clean.

The most memorable moment from Medhat’s bee talk was surely the clip of small hive beetle larvae running amok in an Ontario bee hive. The sheer yuck factor was 12.7 out of a maximum of 10. Good thing food wasn’t being served while the video played. But the little movie with all the wigglers was a good way to convince beekeepers to monitor for the messy beetle and not sneak uninspected bees into Alberta from BC or Ontario. At the moment, SHB has not been spotted in Alberta.

In discussing varroa, Dr Medhat Nasr reminded us that the real issue is the role the mite plays in spreading viruses. The mite is a nasty blood-sucking creature, but it also functions as a virus vector. This seems to cause the most harm. We don’t directly fight Zika virus (for example) but try to eliminate mosquitoes. Similarly, we want to eliminate mites to reduce bee viruses.

From this, we were walked through the problems with resistance to the varroa-fighting pesticides we’ve used in the past. Although they remain less difficult to administer and relatively cheap, the strips are being supplemented by somewhat natural treatment systems which aren’t likely to result in resistant mites. Medhat described screened bottom boards (which might kill 10% of the mites), essential oils (not very effective), oxalic and formic acids (may work quite well), and hops products.

As usual after a bee disease and pest management talk, beekeepers were a bit glum. But that passes quickly and we carry on better informed than before.

Posted in Diseases and Pests, Friends, Outreach | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Judgement Day for Aggie Days

They look like pirates, don’t they? But these honey judges, under the direction of Chief Honey Judge Stephen, are checking honey viscosity (a proxy for the moisture level) of the entries in the “Aggie Days Honey Competition”.

Calgary (Alberta, Canada) has an annual “Aggie Days” with goat-milking, sheep-shearing, rope-making, corn-mazing, and bee-keeping on display. As our city becomes larger (about 1.2 million now) and less connected with its farming and ranching roots, it becomes almost a novelty to see farm stuff exhibited. But Aggie Days is wildly popular, even among those who have never carried the unmistakable odour of the countryside on the soles of their boots.

these are finalists for the special category, ‘Judges’ Flavourite” is the only time actual flavour is judged. For the main contest, honey is judged on non-taste-related elements (cleanliness, moisture, brightness, etc.)

Several years ago, the local bee club started a big display to let city folks know a bit about commercial and hobby beekeeping in our area. Along with the cabinets of curios and yarns spun by real live beekeepers, there is also a honey competition. Judged on such qualities as ‘brightness’, viscosity, and some eight other critical elements, the best honeys are awarded ribbons.  As a past chief judge, I have been involved in judging for quite a few years. The boss designation has passed on to my friend Stephen, but I am still allowed to help.  Today’s posting is mostly a feature of photos taken during our judging process. Enjoy!

Very serious stuff. That’s Stephen in the front, me standing (!) in the back.
(It was one of my ‘good’ days!)

Getting it just right.

Taste is personal.

And the winner is….


Posted in Culture, or lack thereof, Friends, Honey, Outreach | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Wildflowers and Bees

My friend Liz Goldie was in the news again. This time it was a good thing.  She had dropped by a local greenhouse to set up delivery for July for some bee-friendly wildflower seeds to distribute at Calgary’s Stampede. Before she could think or blink, she was captured by a MetroNews photographer while she was chatting with greenhouse horticulturalist Colin Hayles.

Greenhouses such as Golden Acre Home and Garden in Calgary have hired bee specialists to help select appropriate plants to help native (and honey) bees. Liz, a beekeeping instructor and a bee expert herself, made Calgary-specific requests to help backyard gardeners who want to help bees. Here’s the lead to the article which you can read at this link.

More to the story at Metro

Posted in Ecology, Friends, Honey Plants, Outreach, Save the Bees | Tagged , | 1 Comment