We check out the buzz behind Toronto's sweetest hobby.
Urban beekeeping has all the hallmarks of a millennial trend: it’s hands-on, environmentally friendly, vaguely old-timey, and requires a distinctive outfit.
But unlike taxidermy, bookbinding, or terrarium assembly, urban beekeeping’s popularity shows no signs of slowing down. Membership in the city’s half-dozen active beekeeping organizations continues to rise, and hives have now been spotted everywhere from the University of Toronto’s Faculty Club to the roof of the Fairmont Royal York.
It’s not just reaching the artisanal sandwich crowd. Urban beekeeper Melissa Berney is continually surprised at who she sees at beekeeping events across the city: “We joke a lot about the range of people you’ll find sitting at a meeting of the Toronto Beekeeper’s Co-op. There’s everyone from businesspeople to hippies, from artists to students. There’s every age, every personality, every social level, really.”
The crowd may be diverse, but their common bond is strong. Berney’s partner Shawn Caza is also a fellow beekeeper—in fact, the two met at a Co-op meeting. Together they run Toronto Honeys, a bicycle-powered business that sells the honey derived from their hives on the Fort York historic site and the roof of the Amsterdam Brewery.
“Beekeeping is community, in all senses of the word,” says Caza. “Community from the ground up, where I can connect with the natural world, right through to the social level and the people we meet.”
It’s a community with deep local roots. Urban beekeeping’s rise in popularity has been well-documented over the past decade, but Toronto has long been a hive for aspiring apiarists. As Fran Freeman, an urban beekeeper whose hives include those at Humber College and the Humber Aboretum explains, urban beekeeping has been going on in Toronto since it was, well, urban.
“Several beekeepers kept around fifty hives each along the Don River in the beginning of the 20th century, and there was a beekeeping co-op near the Brickworks into the late 1950s,” notes Freeman. “Even former Mayor [William] Dennison kept nineteen colonies in his Jarvis Street backyard in the 70s.”
The image of a metropolitan mayor tending hives in his backyard may seem incongruous, but for those who know bees, their presence in urban environments is a sensible one. “The city is an oasis, and it’s actually the best place to have bees” explains Berney. “There’s a pesticide ban in the city, whereas the country is full of pesticides. There’s a huge problem right now with beekeepers who are near the corn or soy fields, who have experienced lots of bee deaths.”
And diversity continues to be Toronto’s strength: “There’s a much more diverse range of forage in the city,” explains Berney. “Most of the time, the farms in the country are huge swaths of one crop. In the city, there’s always the trees, the gardens. Even the Railpath is a great place for them to go foraging for wild flowers.”
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. In an email to Torontoist, Freeman notes that bees are a keystone species in the ecosystem, as their pollination supports a wide variety of plants and wildlife. She adds that more bees leads to an increase in pollination, resulting in a more beautiful landscape and a larger bounty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Despite the many benefits and its dedicated supporters, Toronto has long had a reputation for being inhospitable to beekeeping. It’s all thanks to a provincial law that requires bee hives be 30 meters from any residential area or place of assembly, and 10 meters away from highways. Pretty restrictive for the average family in a duplex.
But according to Freeman, this provision in the Bees Act is generally treated like a nuisance regulation and not actively policed. “If you site your hives intelligently, minimize chances for bee-public interaction, and cultivate good relations with your neighbours, you will not be asked to move your hives.”
So wannabe beekeepers without the requisite yard space have two choices: hide your hive until your neighbour lodges a complaint, or become an urban beekeeping ambassador who explains the benefits of the practice. And if that fails, fresh honey can work as a pretty powerful bribe. It’s arguably a better arrangement than the much-hyped bee oasis of Vancouver, where beekeepers face a long list of training requirements, a limitation on the number of hives they can keep, and tough obligations surrounding proactive swarm control.
Freeman sees restrictive laws as indicative of a lack of public education, as well as the common (yet misinformed) fear of bee stings: “The confusion of bees with the more aggressive wasps and hornets creates unfortunate barriers between would-be beekeepers and the public. People are pretty disconnected from their environment, and they often don’t realize there are over a hundred native bees in the city, and they’re mostly solitary. But if they run into a problem with a wasp or hornet, people will blame your hive because it’s visible, and therefore must be the culprit. Get your neighbours on board long before you set up a hive. Share your knowledge of the gentle bee with the public at every opportunity.”
Although Berney and Freeman both welcome the influx of new beekeepers among their ranks, they worry about the spread of misinformation that accompanies any booming trend.
“Word has begun to spread that it’s so easy, and that you can just do it by yourself, and that can be quite dangerous for the bees,” warns Berney. “You need to know how to take care of them, and it’s not as simple as just putting up a hive. You need to know how to look for diseases, how to take care of them, and so it’s extremely important to have mentorship.”
“Modern day urban beekeeping has been somewhat romanticized,” says Freeman. “There’s a notion that honey bees are wild animals that can take care of themselves with little involvement on the part of the beekeeper. But really, there’s a steep learning curve and anyone considering beekeeping should take one or more courses and read as much as they can. If possible, get some hands-on experience before investing in your own bees. Join your local beekeeping association and talk to other beekeepers.”
And in a buzzing community like Toronto’s, there’s really every opportunity to do so.
The article misattributed a quotation about the founding of the Toronto District Beekeepers Association in 1911 to Fran Freeman. The sentence was written by the author of the article, and the quotation mark was misplaced in error. It should have started with the sentence “Several beekeepers kept around fifty hives each along the Don River in the beginning of the 20th century…” We regret the error, and to avoid confusion have deleted the misattributed sentence.