Tucked away in a little corner of Lambton County is a slice of Ontario history, although the enterprise, Munro Honey & Meadery, is hardly staying still or even resting on the laurels of a company that remains extremely active from its base in Alvinston.
Owned by the Bryans family, including brothers John and Davis, the business is very much focused on family and has already celebrated its centennial in the community, marked when Warren Munro began his beekeeping operation from nearby Napier in 1914, eventually moving to Alvinston in 1924.
But the Bryans, whose father Howard worked for Mrs. Munro even after Warren Munro passed away in 1956, ultimately purchased the company in 1958.
Even further back, however, Howard Bryans had himself come from a beekeeping family around the Owen Sound/Chatsworth area, although a family with the same name was running a business there, which would explain why, even after Howard served in World War II and returned to Canada, buying bees from Warren Munro led naturally to the Bryans family settling in Alvinston.
For John Bryans, beekeeping is one of those vocations for which he seemed to naturally settle into doing, gathering over the years the knowledge necessary to succeed, as did his father before him and Warren Munro, whose name is still on the door.
His brother Davis, who with John’s family are partners in the business, is mainly the one who travels a circuit that those in the industry call “working the bees,” the very specific and absolutely critical care of some 2,500 hives in a 100 or more locations, each of which may have 100,000 bees or more, requiring the scraping of honey and making sure the bees and their queen are healthy and productive.
The geographic region where the hives are located includes a corridor running west to the St. Clair River but also east throughout Lambton, Middlesex and Elgin Counties as well as around Clinton to the north.
John Bryans, who at one point traveled on the circuit that his brother Davis and a small crew do on a near-daily basis (weather is always a factor), prefers today to handle marketing duties as well as the production from the base in Alvinston.
It was the entry into the production of mead that may have been the most transformative of the Munro business, one that began with John having read that honey—one of the world’s oldest natural foods that won’t go bad no matter how long it’s stored in barrels—could be used to make an alcoholic drink.
“It was really something of a fluke,” recalls John of how mead became part of what Munro Honey does today.
Starting in the early 1990s, John would begin with small batches, experimenting with fermentation and various recipes to produce changes in the amount of alcohol that the process would create.
One day, while attending a gathering of beekeepers in 1997, John came across a piece of paper that the Ontario Alcohol and Gaming Commission had produced on what it took to create and operate a meadery.
Bryans saw that the document had DRAFT written on it but he also, in reviewing it, realized that he met all the criteria outlined in the proposal.
By early 1998, he had filled out the application for what would, two years after going through the bureaucracy, become the very first commercial meadery in the province.
Today, Munro Honey & Meadery continues to produce honey as well as mead—the honey wine made from recipes John Bryans worked on in those early years and still innovates.
As far as capacity, the fact that honey does not deteriorate over time (one of the only natural foods in the world known maintain its “freshness”) gives Munro a nearly unlimited supply of stock from which mead can be distilled and marketed.
With one barrel of honey (and the Bryans family has lots of them on hand), translating into about 1,000 bottles of wine, and seasonal production amounting to between 400 and 500 barrels, what’s left is to grow demand for the mead over time, although the firm’s Sunshine brand of honey remains a staple.
The real problem in an export sense is the complexity of liquor laws in the U.S., which can change not only state-by-state but even county-by-county.
All of that said, Bryans is not looking to export his mead, at least not to the U.S. with all the distributorships necessary, each of which would eat into an economically sustainable margin.
A particularly interesting part of the business is the “renting” of bees to areas such as Quebec, where bees are sent to pollinate acres and acres of blueberries over a period of two or three weeks.
A Munro Honey team of two drivers will put together several pallets on a truck, each pallet containing four hives, and drive straight through the 20 hours to their location, upon which the hives are opened up and the bees do their pollination of the fields.
When done, the bees are loaded up and return to Alvinston, where the honey produced from the blueberry fields is segregated and sold to companies seeking the unique taste for their own product.
And the blueberry farmers receive a necessary service when it comes to their crops being properly pollinated.
Ongoing concerns remain over the health of bees, which Bryans says can be traced to pesticides being used to treat the seeds farmers sow in their fields.
It’s also a largely having a somewhat indiscriminate affect on the bees, since most of the pesticide goes beyond the plants and finds its way into ground water and even in plants such as the willow, where Bryans sees pollen that comes back into the hives can be traced.
What that means on a practical basis is the health of a queen, which may have lived for two years, may need to be replaced even a couple of times a year, requiring more work—“a lot more work,” says John Bryans.
Getting a little education on how bees are raised and ultimately renewed over a season is a lesson that harks back many generations and from which formal education has evolved.
Indeed, through the University of Guelph’s Bee Research Centre, a new generation of bee keepers is able to take courses and keep up with trends and innovations that are likely to maintain a base of knowledge that is generations, perhaps even centuries, old and which keeps the industry vibrant and flexible, even as pressures from modern agriculture seem to put environmental stresses on the bee populations.
Taking a look at how bees begin their short lives—a typical lifespan is perhaps 45 days in total—and how an orderly set of tasks for workers (first making wax, then foraging—which includes gong to the field to collect pollen from which honey is ultimately produced).
And then there’s the “making” of a queen, which is born like any other worker bee before eventually being overfed by workers who use royal jelly made from a combination of secretions in glands as well as pollen to make the transformation.,
“Worker bees naturally know when they need a queen in the colony,” notes Bryan, whose job is to help facilitate the choosing of the queen from stock that comes from a particular bloodline that comes from Denmark and which then leads to testing using experts and equipment based at the University of Guelph.
Looking ahead, John Bryans and his extended family, which includes at least a few children who may be interesting in running the business when he and his brother Davis complete their stewardship.
John also hopes that five years from now, having more of the total business be related to the honey wine would be a desirable thing.
Even so, honey is what has driven the operation and that is likely to be its mainstay.
“It’s been our bread and butter, a good product for consumers in Ontario that’s produced here and sold here,” notes John Bryans. “That’s not likely to change for many years to come.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Lambton Shield magazine.