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ROOFTOPS A-BUZZ: URBAN BEEKEEPING SPARKS ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION
By Gillian Ward
While 5500 people from 134 countries gathered at the Palais des Congress de Montréal for the 46th World Apiculture Congress, Apimondia, the rooftop of the convention centre was buzzing with a novel urban trend. WaterToday was on hand to find out how urban beekeeping is catching fire at the highest elevations of several Canadian cities.
Declan Rankin Jardin is one of the founding partners of Alvéole, a company that has been placing honey bee hives on rooftops, growing the population of pollinators in the most unlikely places. Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto and more recently, Vancouver and Calgary have been tracking with bees, urban hives being embraced by schools and businesses alike. The hives are leased by corporate and institutional clients and tended by specially trained Alvéole beekeepers. Honey production from the hives is extracted and packaged for the client to enjoy.
The result of this bee-splosion of business is that more of us are becoming aware of just how closely our food supply is connected to our environmental condition. Once we have a hive in a workplace, there is a resurgence of interest in growing flowers and gardening in general. The people directly involved with the hives are spreading the word to the neighbours to grow more plants. The high-level urban environment may in fact be more hospitable for the productive pollinators than the countryside. “We have only been a year in Vancouver, so we don’t have stats (on bee health) yet. There is a lot of farmers that use fungicide and pesticide out there and its hard on bees”, Rankin Jardin explains that when bees have been in contact with pesticides they either don’t make it back to the hive, or die in the hive.
With hives on the high rise rooftops, pesticides are not an issue, but the flight path home to the hive is certainly different. “The higher you get, 50th floor, they have no trouble flying that far, it's just the winds that will get them. On average they will go up to 10km a day foraging”, says Rankin Jardin, so the distance to fly up to the roof is not an issue.
Pollination is an economic way to make money as a beekeeper. Honey is another way.
“We are a third different way, our beehives are an educational tool”, says Rankin Jardin.
“Pollination happens but it's not what we are looking for. Climate is different, summers are different, you can end up with a different crop. Toronto, Montreal, QC, we are swimming in honey. Sunshine vs rain ratios, how much the bees can get out and forage”, all of this adds up to the sweet benefits of hosting a hive.
Kathleen Usher teaches science and technology to 400 students at Willingdon Elementary in Montreal. Since the bees arrived, the school has been rich with ideas and integrating lessons from the hive into the classrooms from Kindergarten to Grade Six.
“It’s really special”, says Usher of the beehives as part of her program, “there is an ancient partnership between bees and humans”. The presence of the bee hives at the school has inspired a creative response, as students, teachers and even the parent community have become more interested in taking action for the environment.
Willingdon Elementary is among the eighty plus percent of Montreal’s English schools that have taken on a bee hive. Beginning with one hive three years ago, the bees were placed safely away on the roof of the 1929 four-story brick building, where students are not allowed to tread, but the staff and beekeeper take videos to show in the classroom as they inspect and manage the hive. In Usher’s Pollination and Discovery lab, the students learn about the connection between food and pollinators. This seems to make a big impression on the students, who are showing more interest in gardening, reducing waste, eliminating harmful substances and composting green waste from the lunch room.
The bees are introduced to the students in progressive stages, with the older children presenting and teaching the younger students. An Intro to Urban Beekeeping course is offered to the Grade 5 students each year in June, preparing them for their senior role with the bees in Grade 6.
Even the parents are getting into the sweet flow. From the honey extraction workshops, students step through the process from scraping wax off the frames to spinning the hand extractor, jarring the sticky bounty and presenting it for sale. 150-200 jars of Willingdon Elementary honey sells out quickly each year. The fundraiser covers the cost of the hive project, including instructional workshops and beekeeping care. Since the bees arrived, Willingdon Elementary has expanded to a second campus, adding a food garden with raspberries, and membership in the “green committee” has now topped one hundred members.
Students are so dedicated to the green cause, they are even skipping recess in turns to make sure the provincial government milk program cartons are rinsed out for recycling. The student body has committed to a zero-waste environment at the school, in large part inspired by the fragility of the bees. An overwintering incident at the junior campus resulted in a devastating loss in the hive. “We need to always be looking out for that. The kids were disappointed at the loss, but they understand, they understand the veroa mite”, an organism that threatens bee health. Liam Cobbe is the Beekeeper manager of the Calgary area for Alvéole. The company needs to have 50 clients in a new location before moving a beekeeper in and offering the program. Beekeepers are trained over an intense three-month program where they learn to teach, make presentations and interact with the client lessors of the hives. According to Rankin Jardin, staff is chosen for their people skills first. The beekeeping skills are taught on the job.
Cobbe was busy packing up the Calgary hives for winter, which arrived extra early in the Canadian west this year. At the same time, Willingdon elementary students sell their honey at the annual fundraiser, the bees have gone into hibernation mode. For the winter season, the hives are insulated, but they remain in place on the rooftops. “We never remove the bees, it’s a permanent installation,” says Rankin Jardin. Heat loss from the buildings helps keep the hives warm, but the bees themselves generate a considerable amount of thermal energy. “We wrap the hives in a coat and a toque, but they still need to breathe, they are creating quite a bit of heat inside the box”, says the leader of Alvéole, contemplating his own winter projects further south. As bees are important all over the world, there will always be apiculture work to do, somewhere.
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