It doesn’t take much to see what makes fireweed honey so special—simply hold a jar of it in your hands.
“You can actually see through the jar and you wouldn’t even think there’s anything in it,” says Joel Wilkinson, who owns and operates Bee Whyld, a small apiary located in Watson Lake, Yukon, with his wife Courtney. “It’s clear like water.”
Fireweed honey is unlike the mass-produced amber liquid that’s long been squeezed out of bear-shaped plastic containers onto toast and into cups of tea. A delicate treat, with a fine texture, mild taste, and smooth finish, fireweed is often considered the champagne of honeys.
But its rarity doesn’t just come from taste and appearance. Weather fluctuations, sensitive blooms, and wily bees all play a part in the carefully balanced equation that results in fireweed honey. It’s a puzzle that the Wilkinsons must reassess every year.
The couple officially established Bee Whyld in the summer of 2016, following two trial seasons of beekeeping in the Yukon. The first ended with the loss of all four hives Courtney had brought up north from Alberta. “I thought that it would all be the same,” she admits, “but it was very different from Alberta beekeeping.”
Ensuring the bees’ survival through the frigid Yukon winters was the biggest problem. After some experimenting, Courtney and Joel worked out the best way to insulate the hives and feed the bees come spring without having to expose them to the cold.
The other obstacle was finding fireweed. While the perennial flower cloaks the North in magenta every summer, harvesting a honey made from a single floral source takes planning, and requires the Wilkinsons to track the location and age of old forest fire sites. “I think we’re the only people in the Yukon that are excited when there’s a fire,” says Courtney.
“If you don’t have really good fireweed, [the bees] will forage elsewhere from other flowers and you won’t get that crystal-clear honey,” says Joel.
Despite fireweed’s reputation as a hardy, rapidly growing weed that thrives in sites of destruction, its life cycle is as delicate as its petals. In the Yukon, fireweed blooms between June and August, but its nectar flow lasts no more than four weeks, with some years being as short as two weeks.
“Fireweed is a very fickle flower,” says Courtney. “Some years, there’s a lot of nectar. Some years, there just isn’t.”
This leaves the bees with a limited timeframe to gather what they need. Once the Wilkinsons feel the fireweed blooms are ready, they’ll truck their hives to a secluded area, settle them on the edge of a dense patch of fireweed, set up an electric fence (to keep away curious bears), and let the bees do what they do best.
On average, the Wilkinsons harvest 18 to 22 kilograms of honey per hive, but this can change depending on the hive and season. Last year, one exceptionally busy hive made over 100 kilograms of honey all on its own. Yet, overall, 2019 was the company’s least productive year due to the impact the dry, hot weather had on fireweed blooms.
Still, there’s plenty of buzz about Bee Whyld’s specialty. Over the past four years, the company’s fireweed honey has caught the attention of local foodies and northern visitors. It’s been a repeat feature flavour for Yukon Brewing, and it was even drizzled on top of the roasted beets that were served to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Regardless of how you choose to enjoy it, fireweed honey is a rare Yukon flavour, says Joel. “I just know that everyone who tries it, loves it.”