Joe Valas never intended to be a full-time beekeeper, but for 60 years, honey fans in the Kawartha Lakes have been glad he did just that.
After escaping Slovakia in 1952, Valas — a cabinetmaker trained to work with hand tools — moved to Southampton to find work. However, machinery had taken over furniture production in Canada, so he took temporary work on a farm and instead, found a field of clover.
Joe’s father was a long-time beekeeper in the old country, and thanks to his dad’s guidance he knew a productive field for bees when he saw one. After a trip to Hanover to buy two hives from a beekeeper there, he began production in earnest while working full time for the CNR.
When a job transfer brought him to Lindsay, he expanded his operations and soon had 30 hives working on area farms, often bartering honey for space on the fields. By 1958 he was producing honey at a commercial level, and to this day has customers in Minden, Fenelon Falls, Bobcaygeon, Bowmanville, Lindsay and Peterborough.
The Valas Honey operation at one time consisted of 400 hives, brimming with 80 to 100 thousand bees in each. In a good year, he could expect 150 pounds of honey per hive from collections that began around the third week of July and ended with the first killing frost, typically around September 9-12.
The popularity of his honey with the consumer is one measure of success, but the Lindsay-based producer has collected his share of hardware in official competitions as well, including the ‘Royal’ where Valas Honey was named Grand Champion several times. He stopped competing after one year’s entry was lost by the organizers. Refusing to take part as a competitor, the committee recognized the wealth of experience and knowledge he had to offer, and coaxed him into becoming a judge for several years.
Like any kind of farming, the operation has faced different challenges through the years. American Foulbrood was at one time the only real threat. This bacterial disease kills an entire colony, but lives on in the nectar, honey, and pollen stores. When other colonies find the abandoned, diseased hive and rob it of its stores, the disease is spread.
More recently, apiaries have had to deal with mites migrating from Europe. They infest a hive, sucking on the blood of the bees to the point where they will abandon the hive to survive. They can be controlled but not eradicated.
Beekeepers also face problems when things are going too well. A strong queen is crucial to a successful hive, but if she makes too many bees too soon, they will swarm, leaving the hive for a better home. The beekeeper can watch for that and split them up before this might happen.
Even if the practitioner manages to avoid the bees swarming, it is possible to overpopulate an area. In Valas’ experience, a hive needs about two square miles of area for peak operation. This is partly why all hives must be registered with their locations.
Insecticides are another hazard, particularly ones that target army worms and incidentally kill bees, but there are indirect threats from the agricultural industry itself. Newly developed self-pollinating species of plants don’t leave much for the worker bees to do, and shifts in cash crops away from bee-dependent varieties further limit their collections. Buckwheat, for example which produces a darker honey than clover, was a standard crop on many farms but is scarce now.
On the business side, a trend toward huge volume orders placed by large grocery store chains pushed aside smaller producers like Valas. Large-volume honey marketers are buying honey from anywhere they can get it, and while Valas has nothing but praise for the quality of the product from any competitor, it is hard not to ignore the custom, hand-made furniture versus mass produced, machine-made furniture analogy.
And then of course, the bees themselves can create their own problems. While Valas eschews gloves, he does wear a veil, and long sleeve jacket when checking the hives, and has a smoker on hand at all times. In a lifetime of beekeeping, he only had one incident.
While loading a hive onto a pickup truck, it slipped and fell, cracking open on the pavement. It was early morning when the bees were relatively inactive, and he wasn’t wearing any protective gear during what was a routine procedure. Dozens — if not hundreds — of stings later, and looking like Rocky Balboa after the first fight with Apollo Creed, he was hospitalized.
With the help of antihistamines and ice packs, he was back to work in a couple days. “Stings are unavoidable,” he shrugs.