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College revives original beekeeping course

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Commercial beekeeping is enjoying the spotlight again in northwestern Alberta. After a 13-year hiatus, a beekeeper technician program is being offered in Fairview and a national honeybee diagnostic centre is on track to open this summer near Grande Prairie. Formerly Fairview College and now a Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC) facility, the campus accepted four students to the commercial beekeeping program in January.

After months of preparation, the resurrected program was approved at the beginning of October. Allowing approximately seven weeks for promotion and recruitment, GPRC made the decision to run the course with a small first class commencing December 1. Three students are from Alberta and one is from Ontario. “Next year we hope to have about 12 students,” said program instructor Eric Stromgren. “We’ve had interest from across Canada.”

Because of the length of the practicum component, the college was unable to accept international students due to work visa requirements. Stromgren said necessary adjustments will be in place for the next intake January 2013.

Designed to prepare graduates to make a living as beekeepers, the 11-month program envelopes apiculture and the beekeeping business. Classroom study is combined with industry work experience and visits to large commercial operations.

Stromgren said a unique feature is the 26-week practicum where students work for a salary while acquiring practical experience with beekeeping and honey production through placements with commercial beekeepers. “The goal of the program is that the students will leave with enough education to eventually run their own beekeeping business,” he said.

The former Fairview College offered a similar program for nearly two decades before it closed it in 1999. Just a year prior, Jean d’Eeckenbrugge completed the program after coming out west from Quebec. By the time he earned his certificate, d’Eeckenbrugge had a 50-hive apiary.

For the past 15 years, d’Eeckenbrugge has been producing a natural, specialty honey as organically as possible. Peace Gourmet Honey, sold currently at the Grande Prairie Farmers’ Market, offers specialty floral varieties of wildflower honey from the nectar of spring saskatoon, chokecherries, wild strawberries, raspberries, high-bush cranberries and wild rose blossoms. Summer varieties include honey from red and alsike clover and alfalfa hayfields. “We keep our bee yards at a minimum distance of one mile from the canola fields and out of reach of golf courses to avoid exposure to herbicides and pesticides,” he said.

D’Eeckenbrugge, born in Africa and a resident of Belgium before coming to Quebec, has become an anomaly, said Stromgren. “We are seeing very little recruitment of new beekeepers,” he said. “Some are coming into the industry from a family of beekeepers but there’s very little new blood. He expects that to change with the new GPRC program.

The federal government’s $2-million funding of GPRC’s National Bee Diagnostic Centre at the Beaverlodge Research Farm will help.

The centre is expected to perform approximately 1,500 diagnostic services each year for businesses and other clients. These services will help increase the growth, international competitiveness and profitability of the sector. Dr. Carlos Castillo, applied scientist and manager of the National Bee Diagnostic Centre, said the facility is scheduled to be completed in June.

The beekeeping program will be working with the new diagnostic centre, said Stromgren. Currently, a 300-hive apiary is being constructed and will be ready this summer at GPRC’s Fairview Campus, where the new program is based. The apiary will be in production by next year and Stromgren said though it is relatively small on a commercial scale, it “will be large enough to give GRPC students a good taste of what a commercial operation looks like.”

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