In the wake of the mysterious honeybee die-off, a renaissance in urban beekeeping has blossomed. As keepers attest, busy worker bees improve city biodiversity, pollinate our plants and produce the best honey you’ll ever taste.

by Brad Badelt

A cloud of honeybees circles overhead as Mylee Nordin, staff beekeeper at FoodShare, lifts the lid off the first hive. Even though I am wearing protective white coveralls and a mesh veil, my first instinct is to run away.

“We want to make sure the queen is healthy,” Nordin says, squeezing a puff of smoke into the hive to calm the bees. As the sole reproducer in a colony, the queen is critical for its health, she explains. The metal lid comes off easily and, with it, a few more bees rise up and join the swarm above us.

With the hive open, Nordin reaches in and begins pulling out wooden frames lined with honeycombs, each one crawling with bees. She works slowly but methodically, searching each frame for the elusive queen.

In the beginning

Honey was one of humankind’s original sources of sugar, along with a handful of sweet fruits. The Egyptians started beekeeping as early as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, building long, cylindrical hives of dung, mud and straw. Honey was harvested by either killing off the bees or driving them from the hive.

Honeybees are believed to have been brought to North America by European colonists in the 17th century. Native North Americans are said to have called the honeybee “the white man’s fly.”

Beekeeping as we know it today began in 1851, the year Reverend L.L. Langstroth invented the movable frame hive, which allowed apiarists to inspect the interior and remove honey without destroying the hive. Langstroth’s invention has remained largely unchanged in size and shape.

Brad Badelt

Twenty hives, each resembling a wooden filing cabinet, are on the rooftop of a turn-of-the-century building on the former Don Valley Brick Works property, close enough to the Don Valley Parkway that I can hear the steady hum of traffic.

The hives are part of a restoration project on the brick works site and, more broadly, part of an ongoing experiment in bringing beekeeping back to the city. FoodShare, a Toronto nonprofit group that works to provide urbanites with healthy, locally produced foods, formed the Toronto Beekeepers Cooperative in 2002. Starting with a few volunteers, the cooperative has grown quickly recently, doubling its membership from 20 to 40 over the past year.

“I’ve always been interested in bees and just never imagined I would have a chance to [be involved in beekeeping] in the city,” says Catherine Henderson, a volunteer for the past five years. “When I saw a little note in the Food-Share newsletter, that they have a bee co-op and they were hosting an introductory workshop, I jumped in.”

Henderson is one of seven volunteers on the rooftop today, taking turns removing frames from the hive. Members of the team carefully inspect each frame, and then set it aside until nearly the entire hive has been dismantled. “I think I found her!” someone shouts. The group huddles around a 20-by-50-centimetre honeycomb frame, studying a bee with a noticeably larger abdomen – the all-important queen. She seems healthy, albeit a little annoyed with all the attention, and there are plenty of eggs on the frame, a good sign for the colony.

“She seems to be doing fine,” Nordin says, squeezing out another puff of smoke so that the volunteers can begin reassembling the hive.

A beekeeping renaissance is going on in the Toronto area, and the cooperative is not the only organization in which participation is increasing. “For a number of years, our membership was dwindling,” says Andre Flys, board member of the Toronto District Beekeepers’ Association, a group formed back in 1911 to connect local apiarists. “But once the reports of dying bees started coming out, we had all kinds of interest.”

The “dying bees” Flys refers to are the result of colony collapse disorder, a mysterious condition in which the worker bees abruptly disappear, leaving the queen and her drones to perish. In late 2006, beekeepers in the United States and Europe began reporting dramatic losses of bees. Those reports rang alarm bells around the world about a potential decimation of honeybees, which are responsible for pollinating about one-third of the food we eat.

According to honey bee expert Dr. Ernesto Guzman, an environmental biologist at the University of Guelph, the die-offs Canadian beekeepers are seeing are not the result of colony collapse disorder. Instead, he says, beekeepers are reporting “winter colony mortality,” in which a higher-thannormal number of corpses is found at the bottom of a hive in the spring. Over the past three winters, winter colony mortality rates in Ontario have ranged from 30 to 36 percent, whereas a typical winter mortality rate is around 10 percent. “There is no precedence for the numbers we’re seeing,” says Guzman. “Three bad years in a row like that is unheard of.”

The answer to the mystery continues to elude researchers. Possible causes of winter colony collapse include pesticides, genetically modified crops, mites and viruses, and even exhaustion of the worker bees. “There is a list of suspects that we think of [as] being the more likely causes,” says Guzman. “There is likely no single culprit.”