Meet a Beekeeper

Al Flemming- Ice Cream with Honey Topping (deceased)

Serendipity Rules. Sunday night dessert at Mount Allison regularly used to be ice cream with honey topping. Combine that memory with chilling out with a friend on a farm house porch, relishing the sights and sounds of nature, but noting the lack of bees. They had read their Yeats, but their farm had no "bee loud glade", so gosh darn, they resolved to remedy that lack by getting some hives. Al did just that in 1950.

Al's would-be partner soon lost interest, but Al, guided by Endel Karmo, bought two hives from Herb Hatt, an expert beekeeping minister from Bass River. The same year he added two more from Mrs. Bradley of Green Oaks and yet two more from Reverend Hatt. He got big crops of honey in 1950 and 1951 and he was hooked. In the intervening years Al has kept as many as 1,000 hives on occasion, 500-600 usually, and is only now tapering off, planning to reduce from 100 or so to 50 this spring.

Al taught at Mount Allison University on two occasions, from 1951 to 1953 and from 1956 to 1964, and at the Nova Scotia Teachers' College in Truro from 1965 to 1978. His areas were math and physics. He also bought and operated a mobile saw mill from 1978 to 1996. But the background constant that accompanied all this employment was beekeeping.

In pursuit of bee knowledge, Al went to Mississippi in the spring of 1951 to work for a queen breeder so he could learn the art. You always get more than you bargain for. Al learnt some beekeeping, got an unpleasant insight into "Mississippi Burning" and got financially burnt by the experience. Back in Nova Scotia he worked that summer surveying marshes for re-location of aboiteaux. It was late in that summer of 1951 that, recruited by Endel Karmo, he helped legendary beekeeper Philip Bishop of Sackville, New Brunswick extract a bumper crop of honey. In doing so he found both employment and a mentor. (Bishop was originally from the Annapolis Valley, but he had re-located to Sackville because orchard sprays had been killing his bees).

Al extracted his own crop that year in an extractor he made from a 100 gallon molasses puncheon. The next three years he expanded to about 100 hives in yards at North River (near Truro), Waugh's River (near Tatamagouche) and New Annan. Lacking a vehicle, he walked between his yards to tend them with equipment that had previously been stockpiled. One year, to extract honey, he pressed the comb on site at each yard –no extractor- so as not to have to transport equipment. That experience got Al acquainted with the idea of letting bees make their own comb, either from a little starter strip attached to the top bar or from the remains of the comb he had cut and pressed.

In 1954 he sold all his bees and moved to Dawson Creek to work for the Peace River Honey Company, with a view to becoming a western beekeeper. He was newly married. His wife didn't like the West, so he returned to Nova Scotia and resumed beekeeping with package bees purchased in 1955. 1955 was the first year he rented bees out for blueberry pollination. At that time Endel Karmo was encouraging an arrangement whereby the blueberry growers bought the packages in exchange for the beekeeper installing them in his gear and providing the pollination. A rider to this arrangement was that the beekeeper would not be responsible for any early spring losses. The idea that pollination price should equal package cost had its genesis at this time, and many beekeepers wish that formula still held true today.

Many beekeepers gassed off their package bees in the fall, but Al, tutored by Herbert Hatt and Philip Bishop, wintered his bees, and, supplemented by spring packages, built up his numbers to between 500 and 600 hives. During the 1950's hives were moved as single units and were hand balmed onto trucks. Al would prepare his bees for moving by day and then help move them by night. It was an exhausting routine. He recalls once stretching out on top of a truckload of hives as they jolted down a rutted road from Canaan after pollination. He was trying to keep his shiny new covers from bouncing off. Despite the circumstances he fell soundly asleep, and the driver, arrived at the bottom of the hill, thought he'd lost Al off the back of the truck when he couldn't see him and he didn't answer his call.

Getting hives back from pollination was often a problem. It was no problem getting them to the berry fields, but procrastination was often the order of the day when it came to getting them back. One time, after anxious Al had been stalled for a few nights, the last straw came when Al was told his bees couldn't be moved because "Cedric has got to take his wife to town." Al hired a truck and drove from Sackville, N.B. to Lake Ainslie to recover the hives by himself. Al got hooked up with John Bragg for bee rental in 1961 and he opined that part of Bragg's success came from keeping his word and honouring his commitments to beekeepers.

Al's initial ideas about over-wintering came from Herbert Hatt and Philip Bishop. They made wooden packing cases to enclose hives, with "tunnels" for entrances. The cases were filled with wood shavings- six inches on the sides and twelve inches on the top. Al learned that non-granulated honey was also a key to wintering success, and learned from a Connecticut beekeeper/author about the idea of collecting clover honey in special shallow supers, setting them aside until fall, then placing them as a "cap" on over-wintering hives. Cheap sugar has displaced such labour intensive self-sufficiency nowadays. Al also learned by observation and reading about the idea of poking holes through foundation to provide the winter-clustered bees with ready access to stored honey. In the age of plastic foundation one wonders if drilling some holes through the plastic might help cluster movement and survival. Something to try.

Al's home was Truro, but he always kept his bees "over the mountain" around Tatamagouche. He said that farmers around Truro made silage and on the North Shore there was more clover. Al's colony numbers were increasing, but even so, from1956-1961 he shipped his honey supers to United Woodvile for extraction. In 1962 he finally built a honey house at Barrachois near Tatamagouche and started his own extracting. He expanded by buying the operation of Doctor Sproule of Springhill in 1963 and by buying most of Philip Bishop's bees in 1965 when Bishop died. It was then that Al got Bishop's unique home-made horizontal shafted extractor that spun four fully loaded supers at a time – a piece of gear crafted in the 1920's that Al still uses today.

In 1970, when the blueberry pollination was done, Al had Braggs truck his bees to PEI for the rich summer pasture that he and his mentor Philip Bishop had often coveted. They had to go by ferry. Al's policy was to take the truck on the last ferry at night and trust to the cool night breezes to keep the bees in. He'd drive to the PEI summer yards, sleep under the stars, then unload in the morning before returning to Nova Scotia. One truck driver-helper who didn't listen too well decided to avoid sleeping in a PEI field by taking the bees over on the first ferry of the morning. A scene on the ferry something like an Alfred Hitchcock movie ensued, and Al pretended no knowledge of it when he made his own night-time trip. But Al had his own ferry misadventure when returning once from PEI. He and his son brought the bees back in two Econoline vans. They counted on the breezes to keep the vans cool and being first in the morning's line up to get a good spot on the ferry. One morning they weren't first. Al explained to the deckhand directing cars the merit of their bee loads being at the front of the line. The deckhand said, "That's a good one; I've never heard that one before," and ignored the suggestion. As luck would have it, they wound up parked next to the companionway –Alfred Hitchcock again- Al had to do some fast and serious explaining to the captain. Al eventually decided that PEI was more trouble than it was worth.

Al left teaching at the NSTC in 1978 and that year he bought the first of two portable saw mills with a view to milling wood on his own relatively inaccessible woodlot. The plan was to truck out milled lumber rather than round wood. A write-up on his mill in The Forest Times drew people from Cape Breton to Pubnico. He wound up buying the second mill and took it on the road doing custom sawing all around Pictou County until 1996. Now it's the pension and the bees that provide the income.

Al has a fine memory, a great fund of varied knowledge, and is a good story teller. Some faithful CBC listeners might recall his out-maneuvering the smooth Costas Halavrezos with segué after segué into new anecdotes, or his correcting the Saint Mary's astronomy expert on some astronomical explanation- all modestly done. Al tells me that lately he has been trying to avoid phone-ins.

Al thinks he has got some good bees: mainly Carniolans with some Buckfast genetics from Weaver Apiaries of Texas that pre-date Nova Scotia's flirtation with Brother Adam's bees, and the residue of Philip Bishop's rigorous selection. He medicates as little as possible, hasn't used Apistan for several years, has never used formic and has just started using oxalic. Al practices the Zen of beekeeping. As he says: "Action if necessary, but not necessarily action."