Sweet Innovation: Attracting a New Generation of Commercial Beekeepers
The rebirth of a commercial beekeeping program at Grande Prairie Regional College Fairview Campus is creating a buzz that is reaching beyond the Peace to across the globe.
Launched in January 2012, the Commercial Beekeeper Certificate Program is the first beekeeping vocational program in Canada for the education and training of beekeepers. Program instructor Eric Stromgren says the restructured program is attracting students from diverse backgrounds, many who previously may not have considered a career or hobby in beekeeping.
“The norm is that usually people coming into the commercial beekeeping field have an industry connection . . . beekeeping might be in their family, or they may have worked for a local beekeeper,” he says. “This new program is appealing to people who may not have any previous experience as beekeepers.”
Stromgren himself was introduced to beekeeping as a young child by his uncle, a hobby beekeeper in Surrey, British Columbia. That knowledge gleaned from those childhood lessons in his uncle’s backyard equipped him with the skills to work as a commercial beekeeper to pay his university tuition. It also inspired him to pursue a career in apiculture (the management and study of honeybees).
What makes GPRC’s program unique, Stromgren explains, is the combination of classroom study along with practicum experience working with large commercial operations. The students, he emphasizes, receive a salary during their 23-week placements, while gaining the hands-on experience they require to start their own beekeeping business. There is plenty of local talent for students to tap into, since Alberta’s Peace Country has earned a reputation as the highest honey producing region in a province that is Canada’s largest honey producer.
The 46-week program, revived through industry interest and support for the renewal of a beekeeping program, builds on the track record of the former Beekeeper Technician Program offered by Fairview College (now GPRC Fairview). That program ran for nearly 20 years until 1999 and graduated 271 students.
Stromgren, who is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Biology at the University of Victoria, arrived in the Peace Region in the fall of 2011 to help establish GPRC’s new program. Bringing with him years of experience and expertise in apiculture, it is his sheer enthusiasm for honeybees and their well-being that is notably apparent. When he is not teaching at GPRC, Stromgren spends his free time tending beehives of his own and providing training and support for hobby beekeepers.
Reading through “Beekeeper Eric’s” blog, it’s easy to see the connection he has with these tiny winged creatures. He affectionately dubs the queen bees “these girls,” and shares a photo of a queen bee resting on his hand cleaning herself accompanied by the sassy cutline “Excuse me while I freshen up.”
Currently, Stromgren is working to build a 300-hive research and demonstration apiary located right on the Fairview Campus. The new apiary will facilitate student engagement in research projects and support classroom lessons through hands-on demonstrations. Eventually, the apiary will have an extracting line, giving students the opportunity to extract, package and sell honey.
Stromgren also works closely with the National Bee Diagnostic Centre near Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Beaverlodge Research Farm. The Centre is the only one of its kind in Canada to offer a wide range of comprehensive services to beekeeping businesses all under one roof.
Through the development of innovative programming and the construction of unique infrastructure, Stromgren is helping to create a new generation of producers, one that is armed with the knowledge and the skills to advance the commercial beekeeping industry to new levels and help secure Alberta’s Peace Region as a global leader in the field.
(Written for GPRC by April Weavell)