Ethan Cornish hopes to go medieval with his honey of a COVID-driven hobby, expanding his horizons into the merry world of mead.
“I definitely don’t plan to stop anytime soon,” said the 18-year-old beekeeper of his sweet plan to grow the Cornish Brothers’ current 21 hives to 100, the required threshold for opening a meadery. “We’ve got a long way to go but I’m very excited for it.
“If there’s anything I love, it’s progression.”
Cornish’s honey-making career began three years ago in 2021, driven outside and into action by COVID-19-enforced inertia.
“I do not enjoy sitting still for too long,” he said, finding himself checking into online school while out in his backyard working with hives.
Curiosity piqued about the prospect’s potential, he asked his mother Vicki one evening at 9:30 p.m. if it would be OK if he got into bees?
“She said ‘Let me think about it,’” he recalled. “I said you’re too late - I’ve put the deposit in.”
His initial investment included $240 for a nuc or nucleus of bees, materials for a hive, tools, bee suit and other protective equipment.
“It was around $1,000,” he summed up.
Bees must be properly housed where they can find access to feed and treated annually against Varroa mites, reportedly responsible for catastrophic losses in 2021/22. The spore-based American Fowl Brood is also a threat requiring monitoring and potentially comb replacement with fresh material every three years to prevent excessive build-up.
Hives are essentially a series of boxes stacked on top of each other, typically a ‘deep’ or larger box at the bottom, with mediums and shallow or supers, smaller boxes, up from there. Bees must produce enough honey to feed on over the winter, keeping as busy as the saying indicates throughout the summer months.
“Their programmed purpose in life is to bring in lots and lots and lots of honey.”
In general, bottom boxes are reserved for overwintering bees who hang together to maintain collective body temperatures between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius. Cornish says 15 degrees is a bee’s danger zone, and if one leaves the hive on its own at temperatures below ten, death by hypothermia results. Beekeepers harvest surplus honey, typically from the higher boxes or supers, ensuring they leave enough for overwintering.
Hive survival through winter months can present a tricky challenge for even the most experienced of beekeepers. Cornish had two of his four hives make it through his first winter, and 12 of the 16 he had going last fall survive to this spring, an improvement he attributed to not removing a second box of honey.
“We had a much better survival rate.”
Cornish expanded from 12 hives this spring to 21 across the year. New or additional hives are created through capturing ‘swarms’, a queen leaving an existing healthy hive to start a new unit with a cadre of compatriots; splitting larger hives into two smaller units with the addition of a new queen; or buying additional nucs. Capturing five or six external swarms this year along with splitting his own hives led to Cornish’s expansion.
“Next year, if everything goes OK, that 21 should double.”
There are many theories on the mixed science and art of beekeeping and Cornish strives to educate himself as well as possible. Paul Kelly and his team at the Honey Bee Research Centre in Guelph are internationally-recognized experts and a resource for beekeepers globally.
“He demonstrates a lot in his videos,” Cornish credited. “It’s very educational.”
He purchased his smoker from beekeeper and beekeeping supply store owner John Van
Blyderveen in Holbrook and has found him a regular and dependable source of information. Cornish has also found veteran beekeepers more than willing to share, much to his surprise.
At first, he was nervous to approach them for advice, expecting they would not appreciate what in effect was the emergence of a potential competitor.
“It’s nothing like that in the beekeeping world,” he said. “Everyone is worried about the population of bees and how to create a better environment for them.
“It’s phenomenal just how much support you get from other people.”
There are generally accepted rules, however they’re also open individual interpretation.
“They’ve got their own way of doing things, their own tricks of the trade.”
Some may have been in the business for 30 or 40 years says Cornish, but continue to learn new things, just as he does.
“Bees continue to change and evolve.”
Cornish begins harvesting honey the first weekend or so in September. His first year’s surplus amounted to a few extra mason jars sold to friends. In the second, there was enough to label jars for sale at the 100th Mile in Norwich, as well as online through their cornishbros.ca website. In basic terms, frames are extracted from hives, the wax caps taken off and then spun on both sides in an extractor, the honey strained, bottled and labelled.
“And then we ship it out.”
Expansion of product has been mirrored by expansion in equipment including an electric extractor capable of spinning eight frames at a time. Given there are ten in a box, Cornish has 21 hives, some of which have five boxes representing 50 frames, it’s a daunting task.
“We’re going to be pretty busy for a little while,” he said on the verge of a harvest anticipated to be by far the company’s largest. Beyond the website and 100 Mile, moving locally-produced honey has not proven a problem.
“I’ve had lots of rural businesses reach out to sell our honey,” he explained.
Ultimately, Cornish would like his own storefront and as mentioned to get to 100 hives, the number required in Ontario to open a meadery. Mead is the ‘first ever’ fermented beverage says Cornish, a honey-based alcoholic concoction occupying its own category. It can be served warm or cold he continued, and comes in incarnations from flat to sparkling. Although still very much at the experimental stage, he says this year’s black cherry and blueberry-flavoured meads represent significant improvement on earlier attempts.
“It’s a lot better than last year’s batch.”
The business is very much a family affair including Ethan’s 14-year-old brother Noah, their mom and dad Cory, and grandparents Ken and Deb Cornish, enthusiastic supporters and builders and painters of hive boxes.
Moving into the world of beekeeping has been fun and a little crazy, Ethan admits.
“Both,” he smiled.
Spring is a busy time given the process of splitting hives and capturing swarms. It’s quieter in the summer, requirements ramping up again as fall approaches.
“Come harvest season, you’re right busy again,” he concluded with a smile. “But it’s enjoyable, and what’s a little fun without a little crazy, right?”