Urban agriculture may nothing new, but these days it can get a lot more complicated than the basil plant on your windowsill.
Up on the roof of the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, about 300,000 bees bed down each night in six purpose-built hives, their presence hardly a secret, but perhaps something that would be disquieting to the guests asleep just a few feet below them.
Not far away, there are other hives at Fort York, and the CBC recently installed hives on the rooftops of its headquarters in Toronto and Montreal. On the other coast, Vancouver Police said last month it will build two hives at its headquarters.
Surely fire stations are next. If you can handle a foul-tempered Dalmatian, surely a few thousand bees can’t be a problem.
Urban beekeeping has been, to put it mildly, trending.
It’s tough to peg down the numbers, but local apiarists (bee-keepers) say the ranks of the hobbyists are growing.
“There’s been a tremendous increase in the last couple of years. It’s unbelievable,” says Toni Beckmann, president of the Durham Region Beekeepers’ Association.
According to Statistics Canada, the number of beekeepers across the country has risen by about 20 percent to nearly 9,000 over the past five years.
That may not sound like a big jump, but that figure includes commercial beekeepers, and growth in the hobbyist sector is almost certainly much steeper. Within Toronto, estimates are that numbers have gone up by multiples over the past decade.
Add to that the hundreds of bee “hotels” – artificial resting sites for solitary pollinator bees - popping up in back yards and rooftops across the city, and it’s time to wheel out some puns about a buzz around town.
It’s perhaps not surprising the hobby is popular among urbanites with some free time looking to do something meaningful. Bee populations, crucial for pollinating crops, bushes and flowers, have been on the decline for years, raising concerns about the future of the global food supply. In Ontario, bee losses have been severe over the last few winters, including an off-the-charts 58 percent figure in 2013-2014, due to a combination of extreme cold, mites, disease, and pesticides used on crops.
“Since 2008 I’ve observed so much greater awareness of pollination, of the plight of the bees,” says Melanie Coates, who got her start in beekeeping when she helped found the hives on the top of the Royal York in 2008. Ask her about the appeal of it, and she stays away from the public-service aspect.
“Living in an urban environment, I wasn’t having much connection with nature, and when I began to care for these bees, I felt such a connection with nature in an urban setting,” she says.
Of course, there’s also the honey. The hives on the Royal York produce anywhere between 500 and 900 pounds per year, which the hotel uses in its recipes and gives out to guests.
Coates likens beekeeping to detective work. It’s not like tending sheep; it’s maintaining a balanced home for bees that range up to 5km a day, foraging for nectar to bring back to the hive.
“When you come in the first thing you look for is you’ve got to make sure when we do the hive check that we find the queen, and what is her health, what is her condition,” she says.
She also has to keep an eye out for whether the hive is preparing for another queen. Having two queens means that one could leave, taking thousands of bees with her. When that happens, they leave in a swarm, seeking a new spot for a hive. This can lead to the type of swarm-on-a-branch scene that spawns horror movies. But it’s rare, and the bee people say it’s not as dangerous as 1970s Hollywood makes it out to be. Swarming bees are typically docile, as they’re not protecting young or their home.
“They don’t attack and if they swarm a good beekeeper can easily contain it. I think it’s just more visually frightening than anything else,” says Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council.
Of course, containing a swarm takes a certain know-how, and so does beekeeping in general.
While anyone can go out and buy start-up equipment (it will run you somewhere north of $700), aspiring beekeepers should also take a beginners course to learn how to do it safely. There are also rules, which vary by where you live. In Toronto, for instance, you can’t establish a hive within 30 meters of another property.
According to the Canadian Honey Council, this rule is typically enforced only when there’s a complaint, though it means you might be asking for trouble if you try to stick a hive in the yard of your East York semi.
In contrast, Vancouver updated its rules this year to allow hives within 10 feet of another property, and some cities, like Calgary, have no rules on the books.
The smaller backyard alternative is the lower-effort bee hotel, which is typically a wooden structure filled with twigs and soil. You won’t have your own hive, and you won’t get any honey, but it gives pollinator bees a spot to rest free of pesticides. The Royal York added a bee hotel to its hives last year, and Fairmont is adding hotels at several locations in Canada and internationally, which a few dozen bees typically taking up residence each night.
Bee hotels are perhaps also more kid-friendly than a seething hive in your yard, though you should always use caution around the little stinger-armed miracles, says Beckmann.
“So as long as nobody’s walking around their home kicking it over, you probably won’t even notice that (they’re) there.”