Giving country bees a run for their honey

Bee hives are popping up in cities across North America. (Photo Credit: Meg Riordan via Flickr)

Bee hives are popping up in cities across North America. (Photo Credit: Meg Riordan via Flickr)

At one of Moncton’s biggest hotels, a special group of guests leaves every day without settling the bill. Funnily enough, the hotel management doesn’t mind one bit, because these guests pay with a different kind of currency – honey.

“There is a shortage of honeybees around the world,” says Stefan Müller, Executive Chef at the Delta Beauséjour. “We already had a rooftop garden where I get a lot of products that we use in the restaurant, so we thought about getting some honeybees as well.”

Müller’s colony is now in its fifth year and there are plans to continue expanding it. In its first year, the harvest yielded close to 60 lbs. of honey, which is used in desserts, marinades and sauces in the hotel’s restaurant and also bottled as a specialty gift for visiting dignitaries.

“Bees really are not an enormous amount of work,” says the German-born chef, “and they are so fascinating. Saying there is a lot to learn from them is really an understatement.”

Müller is part of a growing movement of people interested in urban beekeeping. From Vancouver to Halifax to Chicago, and even the White House in Washington, D.C., hives are popping up in cities across North America.

Regulations regarding beekeeping vary from city to city. Some allow it, some ignore it, while others have created bylaws that restrict or ban it completely. Check with city administrators for the rules and regulations in your local area.

“Interestingly enough, bees do really well in cities. They actually, in some respects, do better than they do in the countryside,” says Ross Conrad, an experienced beekeeper, writer, and advocate for natural and organic hive management. “[Today] the countryside tends to have the large, industrial farms and they’re spraying most of the flowers that the bees are visiting. You don’t get that as much in the city.”

Conrad, the owner of Dancing Bee Gardens in Middlebury, Vermont, often travels across North America to talk about his approach to bee keeping. He has seen interest in urban bees increasing in recent years.

“The majority of all plants require some form of pollination, and bees are the primary pollinators we have,” says Conrad. “When it comes to producing food or even just having beautiful flowers, bees can play a huge role, so it’s great to see the interest.”

Urban hives come with some special considerations, however. First and foremost, Conrad says it is important to be conscientious of your neighbours and be aware that not everyone understands bees or wants to see them around. Most times though, neighbours will not even realize you are keeping bees as long as you are attentive and discreet, Conrad says.

“It is kind of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If no one is complaining, there’s not going to be an issue. After a year or two, you can harvest some honey and go to your neighbours and offer them a jar. When you say, ‘This is from my bees,’ they will likely say, ‘What? You’ve got bees?’”

Stefan Müller, Executive Chef at the Delta Beauséjour in Moncton, keeps bees in the hotel's rooftop garden. (Photo Credit: Delta Beauséjour)

Stefan Müller, Executive Chef at the Delta Beauséjour in Moncton, keeps bees in the hotel’s rooftop garden. (Photo Credit: Delta Beauséjour)

Responsible beekeepers are those who work to minimize the risk of interaction between humans and bees in urban areas, Conrad says. This includes ensuring the bees have access to water and ample forage throughout the year.

Selecting the right location for the hive is critical. Conrad suggests a dry and sunny, south-facing spot that is away from property lines and areas with high foot traffic.

Flight paths are another important consideration. “You don’t want to put bees where they’re going to interfere with people,” says Paul Vautour, a commercial beekeeper and owner of Acadien Apiaries in Saint-Philippe, N.B.

Beekeepers like Vautour recommend placing a high fence or hedge in front of the hive, so that when the bees leave the hive they are forced to fly up to avoid the obstacle, immediately placing them above people’s heads. “When bees are out flying, the last thing they want is to sting people. All they want to do is find flowers,” he says.

Vautour became involved in beekeeping over 20 years ago, after a career in airport operations management. With his sights set on earning an MBA, he began to learn about bees as a way of studying organizational behaviour. “I drove all the way up to Fredericton to write the entrance exams, but pretty soon I was more interested in the bees than I was in the MBA,” he says.

Getting over a fear of bees was one of the biggest hurdles, says Vautour. “One of the best things to do is work with an experienced beekeeper to see how they handle the bees.”

Generally, honeybees are gentle creatures and allow most keepers to move calmly and steadily through the hive without much trouble. That’s exactly what Jeff Wheaton found five years ago with the hive he kept in his Halifax backyard. “I was really lucky and my first hive was completely docile. They just let me do my thing and we worked together,” he says.

So Wheaton was devastated when he lost that hive during a particularly cold winter after his second season. “You feel like a bad parent,” he says. “You think you’re doing what you should, but basically they had starved to death over the winter when we had some serious cold snaps.”

Undeterred, Wheaton got a new colony and tried again, but this time he found the hive was very ornery. “They were the meanest bees I’ve ever encountered. The first time I went in the hive I got stung about five times,” he says. That experience taught him that each hive has its own personality and must be treated with respect and a unique approach.

“I spent the winter doing a lot more reading to understand their nature and the basic biology of what a bee is. I also ask a lot more questions now,” says Wheaton, a filmmaker who is a member of the Halifax Honeybee Society. He says the group has been extremely helpful and he highly recommends first-time beekeepers try to build a similar community around them by reading books, attending workshops and finding experienced beekeepers to act as mentors. (Watch Wheaton’s short film about bees.)

Keeping bees requires a commitment, like raising any animal.(Photo Credit: Helene & Kev via Flickr)

Keeping bees requires a commitment, like raising any animal.(Photo Credit: Helene & Kev via Flickr)

Another Halifax Honeybee Society member, Eli Gordon, agrees. He keeps a hive in his yard in North End Halifax and says mentoring is very helpful, especially for beginners. “The first year is definitely a learning curve,” says Gordon. “At first you are really hesitant to reach in [to the hive]. It’s helpful to have a mentor show you how they do it.” He says he has always found beekeepers to be passionate and very willing to help.

Mentors can also help diagnose diseases and anticipate problems before they get out of hand. One of the most important behaviours to recognize and manage is swarming, where a colony creates a new queen and splits itself in two. As the old queen leads half the colony out to find a new home, swarms can appear as a big cluster of bees flying through the air or hanging from a branch.

“When people see a cloud of bees, they get very worried,” says Michel Melanson, a crop development specialist with the New Brunswick agriculture department. “But in reality, when a bee colony swarms they are not very aggressive because they have no hive or honey to protect,” he says. Still, since most people associate bees with stings, the sight of a large group of bees can make many uncomfortable.

While swarming is the natural means by which a colony reproduces, Melanson says beekeepers can control and guide the situation to prevent it from becoming a problem. “Typically it is a two- or three-day process, so you can tell if they are ready to swarm.” Caught early, a beekeeper can split the hive manually and move the bees to a new location before they swarm. If they do swarm, they will likely not stray too far and Melanson says an experienced beekeeper should be able to capture and relocate them with little effort.

Although there is much for a new beekeeper to learn, Halifax’s Gordon says the education is one of the most fascinating parts of the hobby. However, keeping bees requires a commitment, like raising any animal. “The bees don’t need constant attention,” he says, “but you do need to be attentive. Don’t plan to do it if you’re going to be on vacation a lot.”

Thanks to his passion, interest has spread to many friends and neighbours. Gordon encourages them all to get involved and participate, and hopes that by watching him, people will begin to understand the joy of bees.

This story originally appeared in the fall 2012 issue of East Coast Living magazine.

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