Debbie Gray and Jeff Chalmers are creating a buzz in beekeeping, one jar of honey at a time.
The Creemore-based couple founded Heritage Bee Company in 2016 with a mission to follow a path of trust in nature, not control over it. The duo believes natural beekeeping helps create healthy bee populations, which are essential for plant and vegetable pollination, and in turn, necessary for a healthy ecosystem.
“We are affectionately referred to as the friendly beekeepers with huge hearts,” Gray laughed.
For over two decades, the two had longed to get into beekeeping, but never had the time nor space living at their previous home in Toronto. They spent years in the corporate world witnessing colleagues counting down the days until retirement, and they never wanted to live that way.
Shortly after purchasing a countryside property in the hills just south of Creemore, they discovered wild honey bee living in the hollow of a white pine tree right behind their home.
“I heard this buzzing sound in the forest. I looked up, and there was a huge opening in a white pine tree, and there were honey bees… I was pretty sure they were honey bees,” said Gray. “It was the greatest sign ever.”
The “bee tree,” as Gray calls it, was the catalyst for the couple to start the Heritage Bee Co.
After years of working as “executive slaves” to the corporate world, Gray in sales and marketing in the investment industry and Chalmers in aerospace, the duo traded in their business suits for bee suits — and they have never felt more comfortable.
Gray said: “We call this our ‘lifestyle career,’ one we never have to retire from.”
“From the beginning… We sought to do something meaningful, that would leave the world a better place, and create no harm to the environment,” Gray said.
But they also wanted to do something a little more innovative as well.
“So we got curious, we wanted to see if we could bring something new and different to this very traditional industry,” Gray continued.
After extensive research, Heritage Bee Co.’s Hive Hosting program was born.
From countryside weekenders and backyard gardeners, to city dwellers, small-scale organic farmers, and pretty much “anyone who cares about the plight of the bees,” hive hosting makes beekeeping a possibility for everyone. Gray and Chalmers take care of all aspects of hive delivery, setup, maintenance, and honey extraction for clients, all on their own property.
The program is designed to support both the bees and provides benefits to the clients.
It is no secret that bees play a critical role in the ecosystem, but they face the threat of disappearing due to modern agricultural practices, lack of habitat and increasing environmental stressors. To combat this, Gray and Chalmers carefully select candidates who have properties that are idyllic for the bees, and encourage their clients to plant pollinator gardens and provide a water source as well. Their properties must also be free of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
In return, clients get the benefits of beekeeping, such as increased pollination for their flowers, fruit trees and vegetable gardens, among others, without all the heavy lifting. They also receive 36 jars of hyperlocal honey with a personalized label, as well as an educational experience, if they desire.
“It's a far more sustainable pathway for the honey bees because we're not putting 20 or 30 hives in one location,” said Gray. “And our clients love it.”
The program sold out within minutes of its launching, and Heritage Bee Co. now hosts hives from the northside of Collingwood all the way to Caledon. There is currently a two-year waiting list for new clients who want to be accepted into the program.
At the end of the season, Gray and Chalmers harvest the honey — provided the bees have enough to last them through the winter — package it for their clients and sell whatever is leftover.
To this day, Heritage Bee Co. only produces wildflower honey because they believe it’s “honey as nature intended.” The taste difference also helped convince them it was the option they preferred to a "monoculture."
“It would be like you and I being told okay, we’re just going to sit you in that apple orchard and all you are going to eat for 12 months of the year are these apples. You would get sick,” said Gray.
Bees are the same, so Gray said they won’t put their bees in environments where they would have to forage from the same crop.
Over the years, they have added over 10 flavours of honey to their collection, but they create them by infusing natural — and organic when possible — ingredients into their classic, wildflower honey.
Heritage Bee Co. is also a certified B Corp, which means it is “committed to using business as a force for good, putting people and planet before profit.”
“I feel like every day I'm leaving the world a bit better of a place. I feel like I'm doing something to help the honeybees in the most natural way, and harvest our honey in a very honourable way,” said Gray. “And the fact that in our own little way, we feel like we're really changing people's mindsets and the way they think about how food is produced, or how they care for the land.”
Heritage Bee Co. honey can be purchased from their website to be shipped direct from their honey house, near Creemore, Ontario, or at select local retailers.