By installing two bee hives on the roof of its opera house in Toronto last week, the Canadian Opera Company has become the latest to join the growing trend of urban beekeeping.
“The planet is losing honeybees at an alarming rate and we are happy to provide a place for them atop our opera house,” says COC’s general director Alexander Neef.
“More than anything, we wanted to take one small step towards helping the bee population recover its numbers. It’s completely vital to the future of the planet.”
Once the colony becomes established, each hive will have about 60,000 bees producing a bounty of 50 to 60 pounds of honey annually.
Toronto’s luxury Fairmont Royal York Hotel has six bee hives on its 13th floor rooftop terrace, supplementing the hotel’s herb garden and providing fresh, unpasteurised honey for its nine restaurants. The hotel, which has won awards for its honey, is one of eight Fairmont inns around the world that keep rooftops apiaries.
The Toronto Beekeepers Co-operative manages the Royal York hives as well as several others throughout the city. Catherine Henderson, the co-op’s communications coordinator, says beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular in urban areas across Canada and the United States.
“It’s catching on in a very big way. We actually have requests every day from people who would like to join our co-op. There’s a huge amount of interest currently in urban agriculture.”
One of the reasons for the growing beekeeping phenomenon is concern over Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious disease that has caused the disappearance of large numbers of honeybees in many countries.
“There’s much more awareness now of the importance of pollinators and how many of our food crops are dependent on honeybees specifically,” says Henderson, adding that native pollinators are under threat as well. Honeybees originated in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Another factor is the rise of movements like the 100-Mile Diet and a growing interest in urban farming in general.
Ontario’s Bees Act makes it illegal to keep bees within 30 metres of a residential property line. However, that’s not the case in Metro Vancouver where most municipalities allow residents to keep honeybees on their property.
Some of Vancouver’s most famous hives are located at Science World, the VanDusen Botanical Gardens, the University of British Columbia, and Vancouver City Hall and Convention Centre.
Beekeeping became legal in New York City in March, much to the delight of the hundreds of residents who had been keeping bees in violation of the city’s health code. San Francisco has an abundance of apiaries, mostly on condo and apartment rooftops. The South Lawn of the White House boasts an apiary, as do Chicago’s City Hall, the Paris Opera House, and London’s upscale food emporium Fortnum & Mason.
“They’ve had bees on the Paris Opera House for many, many years,” says Henderson. “Beekeeping in Europe has always been very popular. In fact, a lot of the people in some of the beekeeping associations here come from families there that have kept bees for generations.”
Honeybees in the downtown area help proliferate thousands of flowers, trees, and rooftop and balcony gardens in the surrounding urban area. They help diversify the types of species of bees and plants that currently exist, which in turn strengthens the growth of urban bee populations.
Because of the higher temperatures in cities, bees remain more active for longer periods. Another boon for the health of urban honeybees is the fact that fewer pesticides are used in cities now, notes Henderson.
“A lot of major centres, such as Toronto, have banned the use of lawn chemicals and pesticide spraying for domestic purposes, and a lot of them also have also stopped using pesticides in their parks and things like that, so there is a much better forage in the city, in some ways, than in rural areas, because there aren’t any pesticides.”
It costs about $600 per hive, including all the necessary equipment, to get set up in beekeeping. Medications, such as that needed for mites, are extra. The all-important queen bees, which have a lifespan of approximately two years, cost around $30 each.
“It is not unusual to get 100 pounds of honey from a single hive,” says Henderson. “One family could do very well with that and supply lots of their friends as well.”