Five years ago Andrew Stonkus established a beekeeping business on his family’s farm near Delhi, Ontario. Andrew and his three siblings grew up on the 200 acres originally farmed by his grandparents, Ben and Antonina Stonkus, who emigrated from Lithuania in the aftermath of World War II. They grew tobacco there for about twenty years. When Andrew’s parents, Ray and Kathy, purchased the property approximately twenty-five years ago they went on growing tobacco. In 2009, after almost fifty years as a working tobacco farm, it ceased operation.
For five years Andrew has been producing his delicious, nourishing Country Road Raw Liquid Honey. He sells his product mainly from the charming ‘Honey Hut’ at the entrance to the family farm, but it’s also available at Foodland in Port Rowan, and the Nor-Lang Market in Langton. Folks in Toronto can find his honey at 4-Life Natural Foods in Kensington Market, and it’s for sale at several summer festivals in London. Stonkus Apiaries Country Road Honey is also a regular feature at Flavourfest each fall at the Norfolk County Fair and Horse Show.
Andrew was educated at the University of Guelph, where he studied Agriculture, Horticulture and Landscaping. While there he became friends with a local beekeeper and worked part-time with him for two years. Thus began his intense interest in apiculture. His mentor taught him about the business and lent him books for further study. He left school to join his older brother in B.C., where he worked for two-and-a-half years as a landscaper, but Norfolk County exerted a strong enough pull to bring him home.
Fairly certain he did not want to be a farmer in the family tradition, Andrew was still not sure what he would do to earn his living. He thought about returning to school to study carpentry, an area in which he also has a keen interest, but in the meantime he began working with a local beekeeper. “I fell in love all over again with bees”, he says.
In 2007 he decided to take the plunge and establish his own apiary business. With a loan from the bank he ordered his first 200 hives and he was off and away. He now tends 300 hives at the farm, and has another 1200-2000 hives which can potentially be rented out for pollination. Surprisingly, renting hives for pollination purposes, not the selling of honey, is the main pillar of the beekeeping industry. Andrew does almost all of the work of tending his own bees, moving the rented hives and extracting and bottling the honey himself. He has no employees, but is happy to accept the help offered by family members and friends when things get particularly hectic.
Not unexpectedly, Andrew is a fount of information about the fascinating world of bees. For example, he teaches that a healthy, thriving bee hive houses 80-100,000 bees. There are several stacked chambers to a hive – three to six ‘supers’ and one or two lower brood chambers. A queen bee needs to produe 1500-2000 eggs each day to keep the hive strong. Andrew’s bees forage up to five kilometres in a day, returning to the same hive each evening. They navigate by the sun to within one hundred yards of the hive then, as they get closer, by sight or smell. Each queen emits her own distinctive pheromone, guiding her bees unerringly home. If a hive becomes too populated, bees will create a new queen. At that point their natural tendency is to swarm. To prevent this, a beekeeper moves the new brood to a fresh hive. In this way, one beehive can multiply to three by the end of a good season.
Andrew easily identifies his first taste of success as a beekeeper. When the first fifty hives of his initial order of two hundred arrived they were rented out to an apple grower almost immediately. When he talks about standing in the midst of that orchard in the spring with the trees in blossom, watching his bees work, one gets the sense of a man who knew he had found his calling. That first season was his most successful so far, earning him enough to begin repaying his loan. After five years as a producer he can also count as a success the consistent quality of his product. Purchasers of Stonkus Apiaries Country Road Raw Liquid Honey can rely on the same wonderful flavour experience with every purchase.
There are many challenges to the owner of a successful apiary. A persistent one is the verroa mite, a too common parasite infecting bee colonies. Five or more of the tiny insects to one hundred bees presents a very serious problem and can wipe out an entire hive. Pesticides also kill bees. Spraying in the day time when bees are active is against the law. If done at all it’s supposed to be done in the evening when the bees have returned to the hive. Sometimes, however, fields containing hives are sprayed illegally with disastrous consequences to the bees. Seeds pre-treated with pesticides pose yet another problem for beekeepers.
As with any farming endeavour, weather is also a factor for beekeepers. When it’s wet, bees won’t fly; too cold, and they can’t survive. This year’s early spring was a particular problem. Everything blossomed too early, followed by a killing frost leaving the bees without a source of nectar. In winter, bees must be kept alive with artificial feeding. Andrew feeds a mixture of sugar and water, using up to sixty pounds of sugar per hive in the course of the season. The hives must be wrapped for insulation and placed either in a shelter or near hedgerows, protected from the north wind.
After five years, Andrew still finds the process of raising bees and producing honey “endlessly fascinating”. Although he gets discouraged at times, such as when opening up a hive to find all the bees dead, he says, “I wouldn’t give it up, much as I get frustrated”. Of all the paths he could have chosen he sees in beekeeping “the potential for a decent living”.
Andrew is proud to live in Norfolk, “a fantastic place”, he says. He appreciates the support he and others in the agriculture industry receive from the County administration, particularly the emphasis placed on promoting agri-tourism in recent years. He is grateful for the support and encouragement of his family and friends, and he also cites the support of good friends he’s made in “the tight beekeeping community”. There are only 7500-8000 beekeepers in the whole of Canada, and they freely share information and advice.
Here in Norfolk Andrew belongs to the Norfolk Bee Association, an active and mutually supportive group. Its fifteen or so members have recently voted to waive membership fees for anyone wishing to join, hoping that interested members of the public will enjoy learning about the wonderful world of bees and honey. Andrew says “the more members the better”. Indeed. The more people understand about the delicate ecology of bees and the environmental threats they face, the better the chances of arresting the decline in their numbers. Anyone interested in joining the association can e-mail Andrew at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beekeepers are registered by the government and are regulated and monitored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Andrew sees the random testing they do for purity, ensuring the absence of chemicals and other additives, as valuable to the industry. Sometimes, however, the regulations can seem petty or arbitrary. He mentions one instance where he had just had a batch of several hundred new labels printed, only to be told he must change one seemingly insignificant word.
Andrew is bullish about the future of agriculture in Norfolk County. “Things looked kind of bleak for awhile”, he says, “but it’s come back in force”. “It (agriculture) was always the mainstay; it’s what Norfolk was built on”. Although “there are bound to be tough times”, he sees the overall prognosis as bright.
In addition to managing all the work of beekeeping businesss, Andrew is currently employed full time with the Norfolk County Roads Department. He is actively pursuing the purchase of his own small farm, and the potential for secure employment the job affords will certainly help. If hard work is the key, Andrew deserves continued success. He is intelligent, ambitious, thoughtful, talented and resourceful – a fine example of this generation of young Norfolk farmers.