Rudi Peters is the owner and beekeeper of Skeena Valley Apiary, a hobby he turned into a business after his health forced him to leave dentistry. (Natalia Balcerzak/Terrace Standard)

Skeena Voices | King of the hives

Rudi Peters became a beekeeper when his health forced him to leave his dentistry career

Amongst thousands of bees, there is a place of peace for Rudi Peters.

For him, their buzzing drowns out all the noises of the world. With slow and purposeful movement, time is slowed down as he tends to their hives.

Starting it all off as a backyard hobby, Peters mastered his duty as a beekeeper in an industry he never thought he would be a part of. As the owner and founder of Skeena Valley Apiary, beekeeping turned into both a business and a form of meditation for him.

“Beekeeping requires that you be relaxed with calm, slow, steady movements. I always tell people if you think you’re going slow, slow down some more,” he says. “There are two places where I don’t notice my tinnitus and the bee yard is one of them… I find it very relaxing there because the frequency of the bees cancels out the bloody ringing in my ears.”

Over a decade ago, Peters noticed his hands were getting shaky and he couldn’t feel pain in his fingers. Working in dentistry, it was becoming difficult to do his job where stillness was a key requirement. His body was losing control of its motor skills, its nerve cells deteriorating and there was a constant ringing in his ears. He knew it was becoming a danger beyond himself.

“I had to stop because of nerve damage in my spinal cord. I could cut my hands and not feel anything, which is not good when you’re working with high-speed cutting instruments in somebody’s mouth,” he says. “I then had thyroid cancer, which the surgeon told me is extremely rare for men to get… some of the drugs I was on pre-surgery really impacted a lot of my nerve functions.”

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With that realization, Peters had to step away from a career he had built and moved to Terrace for. His long days at the dental clinic were suddenly open and as someone who was used to being busy, he had to find something to do. He developed an eclectic interest in bees and concluded that he could easily learn how to care for them.

Peters says they used to have a beekeeper that lived nearby but they since retired, taking their bees with them during their move, he noticed his cherry tree wasn’t producing a bounty of fruit like it used to and finally saw how important bees were to food production.

Reading dozens of books and watching countless videos online, he threw himself into beekeeping. The world of bees fascinated him, learning everything about them and their unique social structure. He was amazed by the determination of these little creatures and how they kept our world alive by just doing their part.

”I learned by trial and error because at the time there was nobody up here teaching beekeeping courses or anything like that. There were some hobbyists up here at the time and when you’d ask them all why they did it that way, the answer they would give me was that it’s just the way they do it, which to me is always a bullshit answer,” he says.

“So I started experimenting, I’m like I have a science background… let’s try a couple of different variations and see what happens. I learned some really fascinating things doing that.”

From putting in data sensors in the hives to changing entrance ways to affect temperature and humidity, he was able to figure out what changed the bees’ behaviour and increased their honey production.

He says he was astonished by how extremely community-minded bees are, they think collectively and are willing to sacrifice their life to protect the rest. Each hive, which can house up to 60,000 bees, also has their own personality that a beekeeper must adjust to.

“You get some hives that are just the hippie bees, they’re laid back and you can do everything wrong and they still won’t get excited. And then the next one, they are just cranky from the word go,” he laughs. “They think as a unit, they’re super organized. You remove one component out of a beehive, the beehive collapses. That’s why I was always fascinated with bees, just how they function and also how they’re mathematically orientated.”

Peters says they use the sun to navigate and if one finds a field of pollen or nectar-filled flowers, they give direction to others by doing a bizarre “waggle dance” that pinpoints the exact coordinates of where they’re growing.

“There’s a big debate as to exactly how [they use the moving sun], how does something that small calculate something that complex? Humans can’t do that, we cheat with supercomputers,” he says. “They can communicate location within inches.”

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With a bylaw that limits four beehives per property in the city and with only so many flowers they could pollinate in a residential neighbourhood, he then began to set up hives in the mountains and at nearby farmsteads where the bees had closer access to abundant fields of fireweed.

With a surplus of fireweed honey, considered the “champagne of monofloral honey”, Peters thought selling it would be worth his efforts. Beyond the Northwest in metropolitan areas like Vancouver, a jar of it is worth almost $30 as many high-end restaurants use it in their dishes for its subtle, complimenting taste.

“It is one of the milder [types of] honey, chefs really love it… it has to do with flavour profile,” he explains. “Fireweed is not commonly found in the Lower Mainland… there’s a very limited amount of places where you can produce honey at high quantity and we happen to be one of them.”

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Although Peters has made a business out of it, his priority is to run the bee yards in an eco-friendly way to ensure the environment benefits from it. He spends several hours a day by himself, caring for the bees and also studying their impact on nature. He currently owns a 100 hives and wants to eventually increase that to 400.

With his years of observation and expertise, he is now the first certified instructor in beekeeping in the Terrace area. He runs courses to teach people of all ages on how to care for a hive. He says not everyone is interested in having their own but by sharing his knowledge, he hopes to create a more bee-aware culture that appreciates and understands how dependent our planet is on them.

“There would be a serious depopulation of humans, the only food that we would have available to us is stuff that is wind-pollinated, so I hope you like your cereal grains and water,” he says. “I always figure if I can just simply get people to be calm around them, I’ll take that as a win.”

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