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Honeybees at Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver. (Jeff Vinnick for the Globe and Mail)
Honeybees at Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver. (Jeff Vinnick for the Globe and Mail)

From the rooftops

Why urban beekeeping is all the buzz Add to ...

The Paris Opera House has one on its roof. So does London's famed food emporium, Fortnum and Mason. And the Obama White House recently added one to the historic South Lawn.

This week, the Canadian Opera Company joined the rapidly growing urban bee phenomenon - installing two new honey bee hives on the roof of its home at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

"The planet is losing honey bees at an alarming rate," explains the COC's general director Alexander Neef, "and we are happy to provide a place for them."

At their summer peak, the new COC hives are expected to attract some 120,000 bees and to generate about 50 pounds of honey annually. It can't be sold, because it won't be pasteurized. But, quipped Mr. Neef, "we might consider giving it away as a bonus to those who subscribe to the opera early."

Why the urban buzz?

There are several reasons. A principal goal is to help offset the effects of colony collapse disorder, a global epidemic that has caused the annual loss of some 30 per cent to 40 per cent of honey bees in many countries, including Canada. Although no specific cause has been identified, most scientists blame a combination of factors, including Varroa mites, insect diseases, exposure to pesticides and, possibly, cellphone radiation.

Cities often provide a happier bee-scape for honey bees, because there are fewer pesticides being sprayed and a more diverse range of plants and flowers.

Raising colonies of the Apis mellifera (honey bee) family also complements the rise of the locavore movement - those dedicated to sustainable ecologies and to eating only foods grown and distributed within a 160-kilometre radius.

Who's joining the movement

In Toronto, in addition to the new COC initiative, local beekeepers are overseeing hives at Casa Loma, on Toronto Island, in a Downsview park, at New College at the University of Toronto, and at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. The latter, one of eight Fairmont inns around the world with roof-top apiaries, boasts six hives in total, which last year produced about 400 pounds of award-winning honey for use in the hotel's kitchens. Toronto beekeeper Fred Davis, who approached the opera company about the idea last year, says he plans to locate a new hive next year on the roof of a Toronto synagogue. "That will be a holy colony," he says.

Vancouver is another hive of activity, with substantial colonies established at Vancouver's City Hall, the University of British Columbia campus, Science World, and the VanDusen Botanical Garden.

Urban beekeeping has long been practised in Europe and is a growing trend in the U.S., as well. There are hives on the roof of Chicago's City Hall and its Cultural Centre, as well as in the Garfield Park Conservatory, and more than 100 others in the North Lawndale co-op community. New York City recently voted to allow beekeeping within city limits and there are said to be 300 private colonies already active. There are even more in San Francisco, mostly on apartment and condo roofs.

Why honey bees are so important

Bees pollinate trees and bushes, and help strengthen and diversify local flora. They thus play a significant role in food production, since roughly a third of our diet derives from plants pollinated by insects; bees account for 80 per cent of those crops. It takes about one million plants to produce a teaspoon of honey, but the honey they produce, a carbohydrate, is rich in nutrients. In Paris, beekeepers at the opera house have found their bees are healthier than rural bees, because of pesticide exposure, and their annual honey harvests have been larger.

To bee or not to bee

Beekeeping requires a relatively modest investment. The new COC hives, according to beekeeper Fred Davis, initially cost about $600-700 each. Medications can add to the necessary outlay. Each colony, of course, needs a queen, which costs about $30 each. Her life span tends to be about two years.

Local jurisdictions regulate beekeeping in different ways. In Toronto, for example, homeowners effectively require an acre of land to meet the terms of the city bylaw.

Some critics of the new trend suggest that an eventual oversupply of honey bees may adversely affect other pollinating agents. But, says Melanie Coates, a beekeeper and public relations executive at The Royal York, "if more people took up gardening practices that support pollinators in general and our focus was to create urban landscapes with diverse native plants and food sources, there should be enough for all."

Tim Greer, president of The Ontario Beekeepers Association, considers the new buzz about bees "a good thing," as long as people educate themselves and approach it with the same respect and care they'd bring to owning a pet. Beekeeping is quite involved and you need to be responsible."

 

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