The rockstar bee-keeper in Val Marie, Saskatchewan

Part of the on-going project Back To The Land

After photographing Arthur James in Orkney, Saskatchewan and thrilled having found my first subject for my “Back To The Land” project, I continued East and headed towards Val Marie, which lies on the borders of Grasslands National Park. As I pulled off the highway, I made my way down centre street and within 100 meters I managed to spot the post office, the local grocer, a cafe’ and a couple buildings that were either in the early stages of a renovation or demolition.With my appetite starting to grow into a serious case of the "hangry's", I pulled into the cute little cafe' called The Harvest Moon Cafe. I walked in and I could not help but notice the large photographs displayed on the wall showcasing the majestic grasslands and the Bison that call these grasslands home. I wasn’t the only person in the cafe as there was a family enjoying their lunch as well. Making small chat with the waitress and having troubles deciding what to order, I went with her suggestion and proceeded to chat with the family sitting across the restaurant from me. They shared some info about the park, where they were from, and we exchanged our reasons why each of us were visiting Val Marie and also getting the run down of accommodations in the area. After an awesome sandwich and salad lunch, I decided to check out Val Marie's own campground that was just around the corner from the cafe' in hopes of setting up shop for an undetermined amount of time.

The campsite was nothing more than a large rectangular patch of roughly landscaped grass about 200’ x 250’  with large poplar trees that surrounded the perimeter of the property. There were no noticeable markers or signs distinguishing each site, just random picnic tables scattered around the campsite. I assumed you just parked under or next to a tree and that was your spot... as far as I was concerned this was perfect. I found my spot underneath one of the larger poplars with low hanging branches to hide my truck from the hot Saskatchewan sun. I then set-up my tent, moved a picnic table closer to my truck, and settled in. From there I decided to go for a walk and check out the parks office and the museum and coffee shop just off the highway. I made my way into the museum and was greeted by a very friendly woman. I ordered a coffee and asked her if she knew anyone in the town that had an interesting story. She proceeded to tell me about Wes Olson and Jim Commodore. She gave me each of their contact information and continued to tell me about the area and the people that call Val Marie home. I finished my coffee and went back to the campsite to make some phone calls and explore the rest of the town. The next morning I woke up early, had eggs for breakfast on my trusty coleman stove and decided to return to the Harvest Moon Cafe’ for some coffee, as I forgot my bodum press back in Calgary, and yes it's the one luxury I take with me on the road, that and a good bottle of scotch for after those long days of shooting.

As I sat drinking my coffee, I began chatting with the local waitress asking her about the area and the people in the town. I proceeded to tell her about my photography project and if she knew anybody that stuck out in her mind that I might be able to potentially photograph, mentioning my general list of hopeful subjects; farmers, artists, bee-keepers, etc. And as soon as I said the word "Bee-keeper". She said "YES... and I know just the person". She gave me a name and number and told me to give them a call.

The phone started to ring and the other line picked up

"Hello?"

Me: "Is John Reynolds there?"...

"Are you looking for John Sr. or John Jr?".

Not knowing there were two John's in the house hold, I went out on a limb and asked for John Senior, which turned out was the man who answered the phone. I began to tell John Senior who I was and my reasons for calling which he then calmly started telling me that he had a freak accident and broke his neck three days prior to my call. Still in a wheel chair and brace he mentioned his grandson might be better off helping me with my project and from there he passed the line over to his grandson John Junior. John junior answered the phone with such enthusiasm and small town hospitality that can only be expected from rural Canada. After telling him about my reasons for calling, it turns out he had relocated him and his family to Val Marie to keep the Triple R Honey Ranch on track as John Senior did most of the labour prior to his horrible fall that almost left him a paraplegic. The good news was the doctors expected a full recovery. I asked John if it's possible to meet up and find out more of what goes into the day and life of a bee keeper, possibly meet his grandfather, and find out more info about the family honey farm and the production behind it. He happily agreed and in two days I was on Johns door step.

Before I could even knock John opened the door and I could not believe my eyes, there in front of me stood the most incredible character that certainly did not fit the description I had pictured in my mind; a timid young farmer with levi 501 jeans and a plaid shirt to finish. Instead, stood this 185lb thick tattoo covered friendly giant with an orange beard that would make any biker jealous. His physical appearance was something out of a Mad Max movie and would catch anyone off guard if it wasn't for Johns genuine and welcoming smile. Immediately after introducing ourselves I could help not notice John's positive gentle nature and enthusiasm in welcoming me to his home and town. He immediately shook my hand firmly and introduced me to his lovely wife Carly and their two beautiful energetic children Wyatt and Olivia who immediately invited me to jump on the trampoline. I sat down with the family and talked more about my Canada project, my intentions, what I was hoping to achieve and also wanting to know more about the history of their family. Once John and Carly gave me the thumbs up to document their honey operation and their day to day life as bee-keepers, I could have not been more honoured, humbled and above all excited to photograph such wonderful people.

That night they decided to give me a little taste of what I was in for over the next 9 days which at that time was not what I had planned. I only kept postponing my departure from Val Marie because I was having way too much fun both with bee-keeping and meeting other people (More to come on that). That evening we drove through some of the towns backroads visiting two out of the five honey yards they owned that were in various locations, checking to see how the bees were doing and the progress of the honey which would soon be harvested in the coming days. The first thing I immediately noticed was the constant humming in the air as hundreds of bees surrounded you, approaching each yard that consisted of several hives. I wore a face shield but John reassured me I didn't need one at that time nor needed gloves as we were just checking the hive and wouldn't be disturbing the bees that much. Skeptical as I was, I trusted him (only with the gloves) and within a span of an hour never once did a bee sting John, Carly or myself. I also noticed the bees were quite calm as John and Carly checked each hive being careful not to aggravate any of the bees that were within inches from their bare skin. John reiterated that when they started to harvest the honey and break down each hive, the situation will change drastically and when that happens we will be forced to wear face shields and gloves.

The first few days of the harvest started with John and Carly showing me their hives by separating each crate that were stacked 5 feet high. From there they were able to show me the general production on how bees make honey, what makes up the hive, and the different types of bees and their purposes within the colony. ON one occasion we were even able to find the queen in one of the hives. By the time we had the first few crates of our first hive, the bees at this point were in  survival mode and the air was covered in tens of thousands of bees. I can still hear the constant buzz that was almost deafening as it could also be heard from hundreds of feet away. The one thing I loved about watching Carly and John work was their attention to detail, putting as little stress on the bees as possible which was just as important as the quality of their honey, making sure bee casualties were at a minimum. After all the crates were separated and placed on the ground from each hive, we now had to let them rest for six hours, allowing the bees to calm down before our return in the evening to load the crates onto the truck and drive them back to the processing room back in Val Marie. This whole process took a few days and there was one thing that I still found fascinating but caught me off guard when it happened; One evening John asked me to help load crates with him and I jumped at the opportunity, eagerly picking up my first one not before nearly giving myself a hernia. The thing must of weighed over 100lbs. Now lifting 100lbs is not hard, but you never expect honey to have that much weight especially out of a 24"x 20"x 12" crate. It's the added +30 degree weather, wearing thick clothing head to toe, and the added pressure of wanting to perform and not disappoint John and Carly. On one of the nights we ended up working late into the night and my over confident bragging caught up with me as I still had bragging rights because I had not been stung yet. Being stung by a bee or wasp is not a big deal, it's happened to all of us, and it's not the worst thing that can happen. It only sucks when it happens again, then again, then again, and again. This is what happened to me and and when it did, I was losing my mind wondering what the hell was going on as I kept frantically looking over body for any signs that bees were able to penetrate. Then there's that feeling of insects crawling up your leg and for that split second you think to your self "This is not good". That's when I noticed I had a small hole in the bottom of my pants. There was nothing really I could do except say, "Oh Shit" and cover the hole and kill anything that was moving inside my pants. I briefly thought about running away to take my pants off, however that was not an option as there was too much work to be done. John came over and quickly rubbed my leg which ended up leaving me with a few more stings from the remainder of the bees in my pants. By this time it was getting very late, we were all exhausted and wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.

Once we finished loading all the crates onto the back of the truck with no shortage of a few more swear words and grunts, we packed everything up and headed back to Val Marie. As I arrived back at my campsite, I immediately went right for the public shower eager to get out of my sticky sweaty clothing. The pants were the first to come off and I quickly noticed about 20 stings on my right leg which by now was 30% larger than my left. I was too tired to treat it with anything, instead I took a long hot shower, made my way across the camp-ground half naked in a towel, and crawled into my coffin of a tent and immediately fell asleep. The next morning I woke up and felt a little stiff, shrugging it off as normal body aches from the past few days in the fields, until I stepped out of my tent and fell flat on my face. I couldn't bend my right leg or kneel down without having significant pain. The swelling had increased over night and my joints were starting to seize. John assured me the swelling would go down and not to worry. He was right, but holy shit is it uncomfortable and my walking didn't return to normal until seven days later. My advice to anyone wanting to work around bees, wear the gear and make sure you have no holes in your clothing. Oh and bring duct tape... lots of it.

It was a fantastic experience and one I would recommend anyone do. The photographs below will provide better visuals and give you a taste into what I would consider one of the best chance encounters I have ever had the honour of experiencing.

Enjoy!

If you have any questions or know someone in a small town (Less than 500) that has led an interesting life that should be told, send me a message.

~Jeremy

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