Education: Bachelor’s of social science in psychology from University of Victoria
Length of time at current gig: Started beekeeping in university, around six years ago, and founded Beekeeper’s Naturals in 2014, which is based in Toronto but sources their products from a large network of beekeepers all over Canada
Beekeeping isn’t exactly a normal pastime for a twenty-something. What prompted you to take this up?
When I was in university, I did a semester abroad and while I was away I got tonsillitis. A pharmacy in Italy gave me a substance called propolis, which is essentially the building blocks of a bee’s immune system. Bees make it to line the hive and keep it germ-free. Taking it really worked for me, but when I came back to Canada, I couldn’t find it and no one seemed to know about it. In my search, a local beekeeping association connected me with a gentleman who could supply me with propolis directly. One day, I asked if I could try beekeeping with him. The next day, I was a beekeeper’s apprentice.
Was there anything that surprised you about what beekeeping actually entails?
I thought it was going to be a pretty easy thing to do, but bees are such complicated creatures. There’s a lot of information you need to know and a steep learning curve. There’s also a confidence curve, because people come in and they’re intimidated by the bees and afraid of getting stung. I still feel like I’m constantly learning.
What’s the actual risk of getting stung?
If you’re wearing a proper bee suit, you’re not really going to get stung—but I don’t usually wear one. One of the ways bees communicate is through pheromones, so if you’re responding to them in a calm way you’re less likely to be stung. I’m really relaxed around them and I find beekeeping incredibly peaceful. When I do get stung, it’s not actually that bad.
So you learned directly from another beekeeper. Is that typically how people learn this practice?
There are certain courses, however becoming an apprentice is the recommended path. Things are changing now, but traditionally beekeeping was very much a generational trade that was passed down, so not a lot of people did it. It was also typically very male-dominated. For people who want to get into beekeeping, you can find a mentor through your local beekeeping association, and in some communities the associations offer courses. There are also a lot of fantastic online resources.
How did beekeeping translate into you starting your own company, Beekeeper’s Naturals?
Originally when I started working with bees and making products, I had no intention to start a company. After school, I went into finance and I was on that career path. I loved working with the bees and I always looked forward to the weekend because I knew that meant bee time.
So what made you switch?
When I came home to Toronto from Victoria, where I did my undergraduate degree, I connected with a local beekeeping association. Through them, I found people who needed help managing hives and I volunteered. I was pretty dedicated to my career in finance at the time, but I couldn’t ignore how excited I was to work with the bees. I realized I really loved doing this and that there were real applications for these products I was extracting, as well as a growing demand for natural products.
How did you get your business going?
I incorporated and kept my day job to fund my passion. In about two years we grew at such a rapid pace that I was able to sustain myself based on the business. We’ve launched a few products now [such as raw honey, including a limited-edition cocoa honey, royal jelly, bee pollen and propolis] and we’re constantly growing and working on expanding into the U.S.
What is your day-to-day like now?
At this stage, I’m not beekeeping as much as I’d like. I make an effort to do it a few times a month because it’s still something I love to do, but my current day-to-day is constantly changing. We’re still a startup and I have a team now, which is fantastic. I work really closely with product development and our chem team, testing new products and constantly reading new research, looking for new applications for bee products. I work with our sales team to help build strategies and our marketing team as well.
Do you have any type of schedule or set hours?
I’m kind of a workaholic. This company is my baby so it’s never a burden to me. The rest of my team have typical nine-to-five hours, but I try and be there as much as possible. That’s how it is with any startup, handling the different challenges that arise and doing what needs to get done.
How does your business change from season to season?
When it was just me, that was definitely a concern and I would have to hustle to make sure I had enough product for the winter. At this stage, though, we’re working with beekeepers all across North America so there are different climates and we can harvest at different times of the year. We’re also harvesting and producing such large quantities that it can take us through multiple winters.
You mentioned that it’s quite male-dominated. Are the demographics in the industry changing?
Yes. Originally, when I started attending beekeeping association meetings, it would be predominately men and the age range was around 40 to 70. I stuck out like a sore thumb and people were a bit skeptical of me. But I was also used to that since I was a minority in finance as well. Now I feel like people embrace [women in the industry] and if they don’t, I know enough about the bees that I can hold my own.
Have the declining bee populations impacted your business or practices at all?
It hasn’t, because we typically work with green beekeepers, so people who are in very remote locations. We also do things like soil sample testing to make sure there’s a clean environment for the bees. The hives in the areas that are being hit really hard are the ones that are around large industrial farming areas, like a big field of corn, that are exposed to a lot of pesticides. When we’re building our supply chain, we’re incredibly specific about what we’re looking for. That being said, the beekeeping industry in general is taking a hit and that’s why it’s really important to me to work with people to create more sustainable, nourishing practices.
What advice do you have for women interested in getting into the bee business?
The main thing to do is really get to know the bees and make sure that it’s something you’re comfortable with and familiar with. I would also encourage them to learn how to do this sustainably. Bees pollinate one-third of our food supply so when you’re working with the bees, you’re working with creatures that play an integral part in our food and ecosystem. So obviously when you’re working with bees, you will have a major impact on the environment. You can do it the right way, or you can do it the wrong way.
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