The role of urban beekeepers is changing, say three experts interviewed by The Mississauga News.
They are more important now than ever for a variety of roles. They provide pollination and educate the public.
“It’s partly due to the decline of pollinators in general,” said Ted Parkes, a board member with the Ontario Beekeepers Association.
“Pollination is so key in everything from our flowers to agriculture to the environment as a whole.”
One of the reasons behind the rise in urban beekeeping is the change in the practices of rural beekeeping, says Stephen Rice, head of the Mississauga Beekeepers Association.
It has become more difficult because of the worsening die-off problems — i.e. the number of bees that die during the winter.
“Our winter die-offs used to be five per cent 30 years ago. Now the winter die-offs are at 25-30 per cent; sometimes more. For the previous winter, the die-offs were up around 50 per cent,” said Rice, who added bees in rural areas are dying in part because of the increased use of pesticides, which harm honeybees.
“It is riskier to have your hives in rural places,” says Alana Jackson, a beekeeper who works at a beekeeping supply store called Hiverite in Toronto. “You have to sort of know exactly what the practices are for the neighbouring farms.”
That has meant rural beekeepers keeping more of the insects than normal.
“We have to in order to get anywhere close to the kinds of numbers that we typically want for pollination services and for producing honey,” explained Rice. “Urban beekeeping is more of a possibility because there is less pesticide use in the city.”
Urban beekeeping is found in a variety of places such as back gardens, green roofs and churchyards. There is a growing interest in urban beekeeping, explains Parkes.
Anecdotally, Parkes and Rice have seen a growing number of urban beekeepers, meaning there is more honey being produced by urban beekeepers, says Rice.
But many people don’t realize how much work it is. Honeybees often have varroa ticks, which need to be inspected and treated. Honeybees also get thirsty, so there has to be a water supply nearby, such as a bird bath or a rain barrel.
The hives have to be 30 meters away from a public walkway or space to protect the native species of bees. Honeybees are competitors and are not native to North America.
Parkes recommended a course offered by the Ontario Beekeepers Association to anyone who is interested in keeping honeybees. He has about 40 hives, including on the roof of the Young Shepherd Centre in North York, at a senior’s home in Etobicoke and on the properties of the Brampton and Oakville Sheridan campuses.
In a recent visit to two hives at Parkes’ property in Mississauga, Parkes first poured smoke on the hives to mask the smell of isopentyl acetate, the hormone that bees release when they are in danger.
Then he inspected the hives and made sure the forager bees that collect the nectar could easily leave and return to the hive by making sure the entranceway to the hive was unencumbered.
If you want to help bees, but don’t have the space or time, there are other ways to do it, says Parkes.
You can plant a garden full of pollinators or plant dandelions, which are big pollinators and valuable in the spring when there aren’t a lot of other flowers growing.
In the fall, you can leave a pile in your garden of dead flowers and stems instead of cleaning everything.
“A lot of pollinators will nest in that,” Parkes said. “It’s valuable for their overall health. And bees are essential to the food chain. We need bees.”