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Bee condos are being put up around Southern Ontario, including one on the roof of the Fairmont Royal York hotel. (Jamie Kwan)
Bee condos are being put up around Southern Ontario, including one on the roof of the Fairmont Royal York hotel. (Jamie Kwan)

Condos for bees are creating a buzz Add to ...

Yeah, it’s an old log with a bunch of holes drilled in it, but it’s home.

It can also be a deep, dark pile of sticks that are sheltered from the rain.

Hey, if you’re a bee, it’s like checking into a luxury hotel, or purchasing your own posh condominium. As long as the nesting depth is at least eight inches to keep unwanted predators away.

The plight of the bee – and not just the bumble or honey – has been making international headlines of late. Our little pollinator-friends, who contribute billions of dollars in free labour to the human agricultural industry, are suffering from both Colony Collapse Disorder, a somewhat-mysterious scenario where workers, en masse, don’t show up for their shift any more (which many think is caused by increased pesticide use), and a vanishing habitat.

Increasing in scope since the mid-2000s, the issue has struck a chord with those in the architecture and art worlds, says architect Janna Levitt of LGA Architectural Partners, who has been “fascinated with bees and beehives” for as long as she can remember. She points to last year’s exhibition by New York-based artist Judi Harvest, Denatured : Honeybees + Murano, which naturalized a weedy field on the island of Murano (and then installed apiaries), and, closer to home, Toronto’s Sarah Peebles’s Audio Bee Cabinet currently on display at the Cambridge Sculpture Garden.

“Of course, the notion of the hive is a compelling one for science fiction writers, architects and artists to sociologists,” says Ms. Levitt. “In short, anyone who has an imagination and an interest in human nature, ecology and metaphors.”

In fact, Ms. Levitt teamed with artist Myfanwy MacLeod back in October, 2013, to create a very metaphorical kiosk in Beekeeping for All for the Royal Ontario Museum’s recent exhibition on climate change. There, child-sized mannequins in bright yellow beekeeping suits – which looked a lot like haz-mat suits – stood guard around an empty, yet buzzing, hive-like kiosk.

And artists and architects aren’t stopping at the conceptual. In an undisclosed Leslieville woodworking shop, architect Paul Dowsett of Sustainable.TO and two recent graduates – Ryerson’s Jamie Kwan and OCAD-U’s Joel Anderson – are hard at work finishing the last of five “bee condos” that will populate various southern Ontario locations.

Dave LeBlanc For The Globe and Mail

One, a set of stepped, bundled rectangles made from recycled wood, which “took inspiration from Chicago’s Sears Tower,” says Mr. Kwan (“ – the Willis Tower, sorry,” he quickly corrects himself) will be installed at Eastview Pollinator Park in Guelph; another, with a more traditional gabled roof, will be painted “Monopoly hotel red” to stand out at Black Creek Community Farm. Still another, now on the roof of the Fairmont Royal York hotel, takes the skyline as its inspiration, and the final two, one at Toronto Botanical Garden – site of Sustainable’s “Swallow Hollow” birdhouse in 2010 – and one at the Kortright Centre in Vaughan, will be up in time to celebrate Pollinator Week (June 16 – 22).

Jamie Kwan
Jamie Kwan
Jamie Kwan
Jamie Kwan
Jamie Kwan

Of course, unlike humans, bees don’t care what shape their condos take: They’re just looking for the right materials, depth and shelter from the rain. The bold shapes and colours, says Mr. Dowsett, are for humans: “We want them to be attractive to people so that they ask questions,” he says. “Awareness is what this is all about.”

And following awareness, hopefully, is action. Despite the Ontario Bees Act regulation stating that a hive must be at least 30 metres away from the neighbouring property line (which makes it nigh impossible to maintain one on a city lot) there are many things a homeowner can do to help solitary bees – the ones that don’t work in hives but do all kinds of pollinating – in their own backyards.

Solitary bees, says Ms. Levitt, “like nothing better than some hollow bamboo poles tied together or a partially hollowed log located in a quiet part of a garden to facilitate their building.” She also adds that the removal of asphalt, if possible, provides soil access to bees (they also nest underground), and the planting of indigenous plants in the garden will give them something to pollinate.

Mr. Dowsett agrees: “I encourage people not to clean up that messy little corner of their garden, where the chunks of branch are, the beetle-eaten stuff,” he laughs. “That’s what the bees are looking for; and I think that’s part of the reason we’ve destroyed their habitat: We’ve gotten too good at cleaning up.”

Because Mr. Dowsett has teamed up with some big players to get his bee condos constructed – Burt’s Bees, Fairmont hotels and the Pollinator Partnership – he hopes that in 2015 awareness and action will morph into education and reward: Plans are hatching for an international bee-condo design competition at the elementary school level, and Fairmont says the winner will get to choose which Fairmont property the condo gets constructed for, and then will fly the winner and his or her family to the unveiling. Now that’s a honey of a prize.

Yes, things are buzzing, especially in Ontario. “Absolutely,” finishes Ms. Levitt, who visits apiaries wherever she goes. “The worse the problem, the more dire the news reportage, the more interest there is.”

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