Swan Valley Honey

Jeff Lee and Amanda Goodman Lee produce honey in the beautiful Creston Valley under the Swan Valley Honey brand. They also produce varietal honeys and natural honey and beeswax-based cosmetics under their Honey Bee Zen brand. They are passionate about keeping healthy bees, providing pollination to orchardists and berry growers, and educating people about the vital role pollinators play in our environment.

Who are the beekeepers at Swan Valley Honey?
Jeff Lee and Amanda Goodman Lee, master beekeepers.

They are the owners of both Swan Valley Honey Ltd. and Honey Bee Zen Ltd., the parent company. Jeff is also on the board of the B.C. Honey Producers Association, which represents B.C.’s commercial, sideliner and hobbyist beekeepers.

And what do you produce?
100% pure natural honey, comb honey, pollen and and beeswax-related products. We produce wildflower honey and comb honey from the Creston Valley under our Swan Valley Honey brand, and varietal honeys such as fireweed and special forages, as well as natural honey and beeswax-based cosmetics under our Honey Bee Zen brand.

How would your describe your beekeeping operation?
We are a family-run beekeeping operation with emphasis on honey and pollination services, as well as the production of natural honey and beeswax-based cosmetics. We operate 500 colonies and our mission is to provide high quality hive and honey products to our customers and excellent pollination units to the tree fruit industry of the Creston Valley. We are also local employers, providing job opportunities for up to three people on a seasonal basis.

As master beekeepers and certified instructors under the B.C. Honey Producers Association we also provide education and training for beginning beekeepers.

Our model of operation is based on sustainable beekeeping practices, using integrated pest management (IPM) and the least intrusive methods available. We work to educate the public on ways they can protect bees, such as growing bee-friendly plants and avoiding the cosmetic use of pesticides. We advocate for the careful use of pesticides only as part of an IPM strategy. We encourage people to keep their dandelions through the flowering stage because they are a major source of brood-rearing protein at the start of spring. We also work closely with local fruit growers to ensure the health of our colonies when they are working as pollinators in their orchards.

Your role as a pollination service is fascinating. It seems like you play a vital role in the local agriculture industry and also in local food security through this service?
Yes, pollination is important and this is a part of our business that we have invested a lot in recently. Pollination is vital for local fruit growers and we are currently the only local service. Without local pollination services, many growers would either suffer lower yields or have to bring bees in from as far away as Alberta, which would be cost-prohibitive (and hard on the bees being transported! ~AKN). We make sure our colonies meet provincial standards for population strength when being placed in orchards and berry fields so that farmers get the very best opportunities for pollination. The orchardists in the region have come to depend upon Swan Valley Honey’s pollination services.

How long have you been beekeeping?
We have been keeping bees since 2010 in the Lower Mainland under our other company, Honey Bee Zen Apiaries. In July, 2017 we bought Swan Valley Honey and moved to the Creston Valley, lock, stock and barrel. Amanda is a former marketing and advertising professional with the Vancouver Sun and Province.  Jeff worked as a journalist for The Vancouver Sun for 30 years, and before that for weekly newspapers for nearly a decade. He is now the First Vice-President of the B.C. Honey Producers Association.

What motivated you to start?
Amanda was induced to try on a “beard” of bees as part of Science World’s “Science of Fear” exhibit one year and found the experience exhilarating. The owner of the bees noted she was extremely calm about having 10,000 bees on her face and thought she’d be a good beekeeper.  At the same time Jeff, who had lived in rural parts of B.C. and had kept farm animals, yearned to get into keeping bees. Together, the two built Honey Bee Zen into a successful varietal honey and pollination business.

What are some of your greatest joys?
We’re tremendously pleased to see growing public interest in the health of honey bees and the great demand for good-quality honey.  When we hold honey-tasting sessions and go through the “seasons” of our varietal honeys, people immediately understand that honey is an enormously complex food that can reflect different forages and even the terroir on which the hives operate. We love the support and devotion people have for our honey, and the demand that local orchardists and farmers have for our colonies. We live in a small community and the rapport that we have with our honey customers and the local fruit growers is very rewarding. There is a strong sense that we are all here to support each other and that we all want to see each other be successful. Seeing our bees thrive is also a great joy. We try to be diligent in our management and seeing the bees emerge healthy and strong is very satisfying.

What are some of your greatest challenges?
When colonies don’t thrive. One of the biggest challenges in our area is the Varroa mite. These mites are relatively new to North America, accidentally introduced from Asia.  Now, 30 years later, the mite has become a vector for serious viruses that do more and lasting damage to the bees than just the mites. Research is now showing that “colony collapse disorder” is actually a complex series of interrelated problems, from mites and viruses to chronic exposure to pesticides and other external factors. We use organic methods to manage mites but staying ahead of them requires being very vigilant and thorough. In 2016 Swan Valley Honey suffered a setback with the loss of 40 per cent of colonies despite considerable efforts to treat, feed and protect the bees. Across B.C. beekeepers also suffered higher-than-average losses, in part due to weather and disease issues. As the new owners, we’re doing everything we can to reduce the potential for such losses. But those kinds of losses also affect honey production and the ability to satisfy consumer demands. So we’re also looking at ways to stabilize our honey supply by sourcing good-quality honey from beekeepers we trust and respect, and offering that under a new label.

What’s your vision for your company?
To continue expanding and providing top-quality products by raising healthy colonies and educating the community about bees and hive products. Swan Valley Honey Ltd. will continue to provide high-quality honey made in the Creston Valley under its brand.  Our Honey Bee Zen label will provide varietal honeys, including fireweed, buckwheat, raspberry and berry blossom, as well as hive-related products of beeswax and natural cosmetics.

And why is local food important to you?
Local food is important because of its traceability and because it supports the local economy. Not only do we advocate to “buy local” wherever possible; we practice that ourselves. We support the local economy, whether it is in food production or small businesses. One of the wonderful aspects of living in the Creston Valley is that this is a farming-rich community in which you can get just about any food you require. Now, why would we want to buy food grown outside of the country when we can get it from right here, close to home?

If you could deliver a message directly to Co-op members, what would it be?
Thank you for your support! Kootenay Co-op members have become some of our biggest supporters and clients and they recognize the value of buying local. So please continue to support local businesses as best you can and rally the government to support agriculture, including the bee industry. Bees and their work as pollinators are vital – one third of our fruit and vegetable production is as a result of pollinators. Without bees, we wouldn’t have things like raspberries, apples, cherries and, would you believe, chocolate!

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