Nancy Ackroyd’s enthusiasm for the St. Jacobs Market District is evident in her smile.
“I live for the market, it’s a day off for me,” said Nancy, co-owner of Ackroyd’s Honey with her husband Glen.
“We’ve been at the market since June 2016 and we’ve met a lot of amazing vendors and so many wonderful people from all over the world who, like us, just love honey.”
My family loves honey too, and I told the Ackroyds so when I recently visited their honey house and bee farm in Tara, Ontario.
I like to spread Ackroyd’s clover honey on a toasted bagel in the morning, while my wife and daughters use it to naturally sweeten their tea or drizzle it on goat cheese.
It is clear from the hubbub around the Ackroyds’ counter at the market that many other families love their honey too.
“And the nice thing about being at the market is, our customers ask how the bees are,” said Glen, who started beekeeping at the age of 16.
“They’ve heard how challenging beekeeping can be, because its farming and the environment plays such a big role in every farmer’s life. It was a hobby in high school and I started with one beehive.”
Glen then inherited two more hives after the passing of his great uncle, who worked with bees. Over time, his hobby grew to 75 beehives.
“I worked in the city for 20 years and, eventually, I traded my hobby for my career and bought this farm, and this operation had 300 hives. Right now, we’re running about 1,100 hives, so we’ve almost quadrupled the size of what we purchased.”
Nancy chimed in, “We met 28 years ago and today is our wedding anniversary, we’ve been married 24 years and I knew when we first met there was a possibility we would one day be doing this full time. We met at work at Motorola, and we were so busy that our dates on the weekend consisted of going to the bee yard, so the city girl got exposed to farming and then we got married.”
The art of beekeeping has always intrigued me, so I was thrilled when Glen and Nancy took me on a tour of their beautiful and serene 10-acre farm and apiary.
The sweet smell of honey and wax filled the rooms as they shared insight on everything from honeycombs to supers (short for superstructures) out in the fields that contain hives for the bees to store honey, to brood chambers where the queen lays her eggs.
“In the spring, the population of the beehive increases dramatically from 30,000 to 40,000 bees to almost 100,000 bees,” said Glen. “They start bringing in pollen as they recognize pollen as protein to feed the baby bees, as the queen starts ramping up her egg laying, where she can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day.”
Glen also shed light on the complexity of queen rearing, the process by which beekeepers raise queen bees from young fertilized worker bee larvae, which I found fascinating.
“We can manipulate a colony by making a colony believe it is queenless,” he said. “And last year we spent a lot of time splitting colonies and raising new queens in an effort to build our numbers up.”
I enjoyed learning about the warming room and how honey is extracted gently from the honeycombs at warm temperatures.
“We warm it to almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so when we put the honey in the centrifuge to spin it out of the cones, it will run that much faster and more efficient,” said Glen.
Honey bees are vital to life on Earth, but are often misunderstood, said Nancy.
“They’re actually very calm, typically, and they are not aggressive by nature unless you start swatting at them,” she said. “Honeybees are more brown, orange and black compared to the yellow and black ones, and honeybees don’t go near your food or cans of pop in the summer, they’re not interested. They’re very beautiful to watch on a flower when you see them getting the nectar or pollinating, and they don’t mind you looking at them as long as they don’t feel threatened.”
Nancy added, “Wasps can actually sting you more than once whereas honey bees have a barbed stinger and once they sting you they perish, so wasps and honeybees are like comparing cats and dogs, they’re both insects with wings but they’re not even related.”
Walking past the 650-pound barrels of honey, Glen said with a chuckle: “They say it takes 500 trips for a bee to make a tablespoon of honey, so how many trips does it take to fill a 45-gallon barrel?”
Nancy replied, “A trillion?”
Before heading out into the bee yard, Nancy showed me how she makes candles from blocks of beeswax, using over 45 different silicone-based molds.
“Beeswax candles purify the air because they’re not petroleum-based,” she said. “It actually burns the dust particles and a lot of massage therapists will burn them for 20 minutes for people who have severe allergies, they attract all the negative ions and burns them up. Beeswax candles also burn much slower, for example, a petroleum-based tea light might burn for an hour or two while a beeswax candle will burn for six hours.”
Nancy also told me how raw honey can be used to treat infected wounds as it accelerates healing.
Bees are associated with hard work and diligence, and it was never more evident to me out in the bee yard where Glen proudly showed me some of his hives, after using his bee smoker, a devise used in beekeeping to calm honeybees.
“A worker bee at this time of year – June, July and August – their lifespan is about 45 days,” said Glen. “They’re born, they clean, they feed the baby bees, then they’re guard bees and the last thing they do is work as a field bee, collecting honey and that wears them right out. A queen can, in a perfect world, productively lay eggs for two to three years.”
Gentleness, prolific honey production, and disease resistance are characteristics the Ackroyds are looking for in the colonies they raise, said Glen.
“We have 35 different locations, each location has about 32 hives and each hive right now has about 70,000 bees in each colony. Our hives are typically in Bruce County, and right here in Tara I have bees about a half hour away almost in any direction from our home base.”
Ackroyd’s Honey is also eco-conscious when it comes to recycling containers, said Glen.
“We can take an individual customer’s container and refill it for them if someone uses a lot of honey. Our customers at the market, they’ve really become an extension of our family as we see so many of them regularly. And although we have to work late nights and get up very early, the market is a nice place to spend a Saturday.”
Nancy added, “The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is a destination, and it has allowed our family to be able to support ourselves and survive on our business while teaching our children about good customer service and the importance of integrity and hard work.”
There’s a reason the term “busy bee” exists. The Ackroyds, fittingly, are busy beekeepers, and you can taste it in their honey.