Paul Gautreau, the man in charge of making beer at Big Rock Brewery, is holding the innards of a bee hive – a sticky wooden frame bloated with honey and busy insects – when he trips on the corner of a wooden pallet.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," he says as he tips toward the ground. It looks as if he is pranking bystanders with a slow-motion soccer dive. Mr. Gautreau dodges a spectator, avoids a rock and lands the frame right-side-up in the grass, diving over the top. The bees are safe.
"I didn't care about you," he says to a visitor. "I was worried about the bees."
Mr. Gautreau is one of Canada's urban bee hobbyists, an expanding group fuelled largely by two factors: fear that North America's bees are disappearing and the push for food made with local ingredients. Big Rock's colony has six hives – those stacked boxes holding frames of honeycomb, honey and bees – in an industrial park in southeast Calgary. They will produce about 68 kilograms of honey this year. The brewmaster will use it to make about 3,000 bottles of specialty beer this fall.
"We want to be involved in this whole movement," Mr. Gautreau says.
In Calgary, the bandwagon is crowded. Big Rock Brewery is one of 10 corporate clients working with beekeeper Eliese Watson, who owns Apiaries and Bees for Communities. Last year, she worked with six firms, and three the year before. There are about 30 companies on her waiting list.
Ms. Watson manages a total of 50 hobby hives for these customers, including Calgary's Fairmont Palliser hotel, the Hyatt Regency, Swizzlesticks Salon Spa, and Intrinsi, which practises osteopathy, a brand of alternative medicine. She also helps set up backyard enthusiasts and has established 700 colonies for honeybee hobbyists in Alberta since 2010. An average colony, contained in a hive, hosts between 15,000 and 20,000 bees, she says. Calgary does not keep track of how many bee colonies are in the city.
Meanwhile, Edmonton has issued 28 urban bee permits since April, an official says, noting there are likely unregistered hives in the city, too. Edmonton did not allow citizens to keep bees prior to this year.
Honeybees in North America have an awkward role in the bee crisis. Honeybees – not native to the continent – are the insect equivalent of cattle, farm animals under the care of producers. Honeybees are not among those headed toward extinction, even as the health of their colonies struggles. Human intervention protects them from obliteration. Canadian beekeepers, for example, import replacement stock – including queens – from such places as New Zealand and Chile.
Instead, bees that pollinate but do not produce honey sold in grocery stores and farmers' markets are disappearing. The rusty-patched bumblebee, historically one of the most common bumblebee species throughout eastern North America, is likely extinct in Canada, according to Jeremy Kerr, a macroecologist and conservation biologist at the University of Ottawa. The western bumblebee used to be found in southern Alberta and British Columbia, but is now limited largely to the Rocky Mountains, he says. As well, bumblebee species in southern areas of North America have lost about 300 kilometres from the southern edge of their ranges, Prof. Kerr says. Factors such as climate change and pesticides, he says, are to blame.
"There are problems with honeybees that are legitimate and really worrying," Prof. Kerr says. "But for many of us who think about bees and their conservation, we find it sometimes a little strange to really slam the message that we should be trying to conserve a species that is an introduced thing that lives primarily on farms."
The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists estimates roughly 16.4 per cent of the country's wintered honeybee colonies were lost in 2014-15, compared with 25 per cent in the winter prior. Beekeepers blamed starvation, weather, weak colonies, poor queens and nosema, a common and widespread adult honeybee disease, CAPA says. Winter losses reached 37.8 per cent in Ontario last year, compared with 58 per cent the year before. The association considers a winter mortality rate of 15 per cent acceptable.
While honeybees receive a disproportionate amount of concern from hive hobbyists, Prof. Kerr will take it. At the very least, he says, the urban effort draws attention to bees, albeit the wrong ones.
"There's nothing but good things to say about the effort," he says. "If they are going to throw their spades in the soil and start shovelling out from this problem, I think that's a great thing."
Calgary's Fairmont Palliser joined the effort about five years ago. (Fairmont Hotels & Resorts launched a global effort to protect bees in 2008.) Craig Nazareth, the Palliser's executive chef, says the hotel's three hives produced about 45 kilograms of honey this year. Clover took over the bees' pollinating grounds this year, giving the hotel's honey a floral flavour. Dandelions dominated last year, adding a touch of dandelion-greens taste to the Palliser's production. The hotel gives its VIPs the honey as gifts and uses it in meals for them. And earlier this year, roughly 30 guests paid about $85 each to go on a small biking tour of the Palliser's apiary with Mr. Nazareth.
"Bees are important to us right now," he says. "Without bees, we wouldn't be eating the fruits and vegetables that we do eat. We need bees to pollinate all of them. And it is great for the environment, especially Calgary, when we have so little [locally grown] produce."
Back at Big Rock Brewery, which turned 30 on Wednesday, Mr. Gautreau walks through the company's new garden boxes in one of its parking lots. Big Rock wanted the bees to have easier access to vegetation in need of pollinating. Its employees formed teams, each responsible for parts of the garden, and they competitively grow kale, rhubarb, Swiss chard, marigolds, pansies, carrots, peas, cherry trees and other plants.
"It is good for the company; it is good for the culture," Mr. Gautreau says. "They've all bought into it."