These days, Mario and Diane Borsato call themselves the carpenter and the professor.
The father-daughter team are nurturing two colonies of bees in Mr. Borsato's backyard. Mr. Borsato, 66, does the heavy lifting while Ms. Borsato, 39, does the extensive research needed to ensure the hives thrive.
Three years ago, Ms. Borsato, an associate professor of fine art and music at the University of Guelph, asked her father if he'd like to team up and take care of the bees – which now number roughly 100,000 – at his picturesque property on the Credit River in Mississauga. Retired but always up for something new, Mario agreed (after convincing his skeptical wife that the bees would not swarm the house).
Both say beekeeping has been a life-changing experience, not only because it has made them more attuned to the environment, but because of the zen-like, almost spiritual impact it has had on their lives. Working with bees, Ms. Borsato explains, "is a tonic for the spirit and the soul."
Her dad is equally smitten. "It's just something very special to see nature at work. If I knew all this before, I would have started 20 years ago."
Urban beekeeping has exploded in Toronto over the past five years, with hives popping up in backyards and rooftops. John Flys of the Toronto District Beekeepers' Association estimates there were 100 registered urban beekeepers in and around the GTA 10 years ago.
Now he figures that number has tripled, with more support groups popping up to educate and energize urban beekeepers. One of the biggest factors in the popularity of urban beekeeping is the calming effect of the insects. Mr. Flys's son, Andre, says it's like the new yoga among devotees – albeit in his case it's "a back-breaking form of exercise." (Andre helps his father tend to 400 to 500 hives, which totals 1 billion buzzing creatures).
"It's like gardening," Andre says. "You go into your beeyard, you work with your bees, and when they're healthy, you watch them getting stronger and stronger. It's rewarding, like planting a vegetable garden, fertilizing it, watching plants grow."
"It's an extraordinary sensation to stand in a beeyard in the midst of thousands of bees that are coming and going from the hives," says Fran Freeman, a sculptor and mentor for many aspiring urban beekeepers in the city. "On a glorious, sunny day when you hear the buzz of bees, there is a note that is near B, below middle C. It's kind of like a giant om."
Ms. Borsato laughs when she describes how much of a calming influence the bees have had on her father. "He has a background in carpentry, and he started at [beekeeping] kind of aggressively, moving boxes, and banging things," she says. "It's been amazing to watch, over one season, how much he dramatically changed his way of moving and handling them. At first, he told me you have to be the boss of the bees. Well, he soon learned bees are the boss. He got stung in the nose, and it doubled in size. He got two black eyes. He learned all the rules to be gentle and calm."
And even those who are deadly allergic to bees can't deny their halcyon effects. After attending a community meeting on urban farming at Wychwood Barns, Barb Kerr caught the beekeeping bug. Only problem? One sting would send her to hospital.
But she forged ahead, and now hosts two bee colonies in her and her husband Peter's Bloor and Dovercourt backyard. Because of her allergy, Ms. Kerr opted not to tend directly to the bees. That's where Ms. Freeman comes in.
"I'm like a host for the bee hives," explains Ms. Kerr. "I was a little nervous at first but Fran [Freeman] said they fly a very prescribed path. So I just let them do what they want to do. If you were here, you wouldn't even know we had bees in our backyard. They are in their own little territory."
Sadly, the Kerrs opened their bee boxes at the end of March to find that some contaminant (likely a pesticide) had killed both their hives. "It was so sad when Fran opened them up," Ms. Kerr says. "Both Peter and I got really attached to them. I love the idea they're making something. We have a sort of poetic and really emotional attachment to them. When they died, we were heartbroken."
Last week, Ms. Freeman dropped off two uncontaminated nuclei of Buckfast bees in the Kerr's beeyard so they can start again.
"It's a lot of work, but the perks far outweigh the challenges," says Ms. Freeman, who is currently running sustainable beekeeping workshops through Bento Miso's Gatherer programme on Richmond St., near Trinity Bellwoods Park. "It's hard to explain [beekeepers' devotion to their charges], but my partner John said the first time he opened up a hive he almost cried it was such an intense experience for him. When people talk about their bees, they talk in terms of love."
For Ms. Borsato, too, beekeeping is solace. She believes it so strongly that this fall she is organizing an ambitious live art performance during Nuit Blanche that will feature 100 regional beekeepers, dressed in their bee suits, participating in a massive collective meditation in the Art Gallery of Ontario's Walker Court. Her intent, she explains, is for her and her fellow beekeepers to silently meditate on notions of "good weather" for the bees and for all of us. (The exhibition will take place Oct. 5 from 7 p.m. to midnight.) "It creates a public platform upon which to reflect on the health and temper of bees and their keepers, and on the policies and environmental conditions that affect our shared future," she says.
Mr. Borsato is not sure if he's going to join his daughter in the communal meditation, but after working alongside the bees the past three years, he says he's learned to appreciate the om-like essence of the bee's world. "It started as a hobby for me and my daughter. Now it's a shared passion. We do have arguments because she's very bossy," he says, chuckling. "But they don't last more than two minutes. I'm having lots of fun. You learn a lot from the bees – especially about yourself."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Fran Freeman co-manages 30 hives with the Toronto Beekeeping Co-op. Ms. Freeman is a past member of the Co-op and no longer with them.