Making Toronto a More Hospitable Place for Bees

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Making Toronto a Better Home for Bees

Toronto was just named Canada's first Bee City–what that means for the dwindling population of pollinators.

Photo by {RuthMaria} from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by {RuthMaria} from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The long-term prognosis of bee populations has been a hot topic of discussion of late within the environmental community. While these flying critters are vital to human survival due to their work as pollinators, beekeepers and scientists alike are alarmed by the increasingly common problem of colony collapse disorder. Scientists have singled out neonicotinoids, or neonics, a form of pesticide that became common in the 1990s, as a major contributor to this problem. Following the revelation that 58 per cent of Ontario’s honeybee population died over the winter of 2013-2014–far exceeding the “normal” die-off rate of 15 per cent, and more than double the Canadian average of 25 per cent–the provincial government vowed to take action. Subsequently, on July 1, 2015, Ontario implemented new rules designed to reduce the amount of farmland utilizing neonics by 80 per cent come 2017. In doing this, the province became the first in Canada to pass such legislation.

While this legislation promises to help stabilize bee populations in rural Ontario, there is an active movement to improve conditions within urban communities. This past week, Toronto was proclaimed Canada’s first “Bee City.” Based on a motion introduced by Councillor Michelle Holland (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest) and passed unanimously by City Council, this designation brings with it a number of concrete measures.

According to Shelly Candel, director of Bee City Canada, the NGO behind this initiative, the city has established two working groups, “one comprised of City staff from many departments including Parks, Environment, and Water. The other group is made up of pollinator experts, beekeepers, as well as researchers studying different pollinators.” This coincides with an educational mandate that will involve placing information about the development of a bee-friendly community on the official Toronto website and a public celebration during International Pollinator Week in June. Candel also notes that the city will reach out to the private sector and encourage them “to change their green grass backyards–a desert for pollinators–into pollinator-friendly habitat, including herb gardens, vegetable gardens, and … more native plants.” Above all else, Candel hopes to change public perception regarding the temperament of the city’s bees, which includes over 300 varieties. As she explained, “Education needs to address the misunderstanding that bees are aggressive. That characteristic belongs to wasps and hornets. Most indigenous bees are docile and live solitary lives.”

While efforts are underway to make the city more hospitable for its “wild” bee population, honeybee apiaries have also taken a foothold in Toronto. The Fairmont Royal York has been home to a rooftop apiary since 2008, which operates in partnership with the Toronto Beekeepers Cooperative and FoodShare. The student-run University of Toronto Beekeeping Education Enthusiast Society (U of T BEES), founded in 2009, maintains hives on the rooftops of Trinity College and the Faculty Club, while also hosting public hive visits and educational workshops.

More recently, apiaries are appearing at city golf courses. As Pieter Basedow, one of the co-founders of U of T BEES, explains, “The idea to populate some of the golf courses with honeybee hives came to me in 2014 when I thought about expanding my activities surrounding keeping bees. I always found it odd that people were not aware of the thousands of acres of beautiful green space within the borders of the city of Toronto and the benefit to the population at large.” This resulted in the creation of a program at the Scarboro Golf & Country Club, where three hives were installed in the spring of 2015.

Although golf courses have a reputation for being environmentally unfriendly sites, due to the chemicals used to maintain their carefully manicured greens, Basedow, who serves as the club’s chief apiarist, believes that this reputation is growing increasingly outdated. As he explained, “The hives at the Scarboro Golf & Country Club all survived last winter and are very healthy. They are doing better than the hives on rooftops downtown. It is exactly that misconception that golf courses are a chemical pit that I am trying to debunk. Honeybees are like the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’–they are very susceptible to any chemical residues. As golf courses are now seeking environmental certification, they are looking very closely at the need for any sprays to be used on the fairways. Instead they are using different types of grasses and a more integrated pest management system not harmful to the environment.” He also notes that sustainable development of golf courses makes economic sense, as it is good for their bottom line. Word of the program at the Scarboro Golf & Country Club has spread within the golf community, and beginning next month, Basedow will also serve as chief apiarist in charge of three honeybee hives at Markham’s Angus Glen Golf Club.

There are many ways the average person can contribute to helping bees and their fellow pollinators. Most importantly, you can educate yourself on the issues confronting them. If you have a sweet tooth, you can support locally produced honey. You can attend local workshops and information sessions. And finally, you can also support efforts to develop more bee-friendly habitats.

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