I started working with the University of Toronto Beekeeping Education Enthusiast Society (U of T B.E.E.S.) student club in 2009 when a second year environmental studies student approached me with the idea of hosting honey bee hives on a rooftop at the university’s St. George campus.
The student club is made up of a group of students and community members committed to educating themselves and others about natural beekeeping, pollinators and the production of local honey. The club provides a rare space within Toronto where anyone can participate and learn the skills of natural beekeeping within an urban context.
The Constitution for the club indicates that it shall be the purpose of U of T BEES to allow students an opportunity to learn about the age-old tradition of beekeeping and the role that bees play in sustaining a healthy ecosystem. The club seeks to highlight the importance of urban beekeeping as a means of encouraging the survival of pollinators responsible for the existence of many plants. Urban beekeeping is very much an active way to save the bee population, an activity which is very important as bees are experiencing a decline in numbers due to unsustainable agricultural practices and global climate change. U of T BEES also provides a unique opportunity for students to connect with nature, learn about the process of honey creation and participate in the production of local food.
For me, it is important to connect students to nature and specifically to educate people on where our food actually comes from. In addition, having hives on campus provides an excellent opportunity to further educate the community concerning climate change / global warming and the environmental problems affecting our planet.
Many students are already aware of colony collapse disorder, a condition which killed nearly sixty percent of all honeybee hives in Ontario in 2013. When we approached the warden of the University of Toronto’s Hart House, she was very enthusiastic about the idea of being the first to host two hives on campus. Full approval was given to the newly-established student club and funding was secured from the University of Toronto Environmental Resource Network. However, two weeks before the hives were to be installed at Hart House, the warden changed her mind and the student club was left without a hosting location!
My task was to secure an alternate location, something I managed to do with the great help of Trinity College’s Bursar. Trinity’s Henderson Tower proved to be a perfect venue for our bees as there is shelter from the wind; moreover, the views for visiting humans are spectacular!
Everything went well as the first two hives for U of T BEES were established. Over the years, the student club has grown to a membership of almost 500 students and now there are additional hive locations at the Faculty Club and the Environmental Sciences building.
Ahead of us lies the enormous challenge of finding solutions to impending cultural shifts. Some of these shifts will include a fundamental repositioning of how food is grown and the strengthening of our local food networks; a radical redesign of our built systems to conserve scarce resources and to increase biodiversity; and, of course, a restructured model of education to prepare the next generation for the great challenges climate change / global warming will bring.
One possible model for such a shift revisits the age-old practice of beekeeping. Most farmers rely on honeybees to pollinate crops but we are experiencing alarming declines in numbers due to a many factors including agricultural monocultures, the loss of native flora, habitat fragmentation, and, most of all, pesticide use. The success of crop pollination services provided by the honeybee will be most influenced by the ability of human societies to embrace efforts to conserve habitat.
A truly sustainable culture is uniquely informed by the local climate, geography and ecosystems that are connected to that culture. In order for us to learn to live in such a way that these natural systems are not further compromised for future generations, we must develop a deep awareness and understanding of these systems and, in particular, how human activities affect them. If you speak to any beekeeper, you will find a deep appreciation for the link between these tiny pollinators and their guardians. In other words, to understand the vast interconnectedness of our living world, we only need to be taught by the honeybees.Working with bees allows for the acquisition of new skills and truly transformational experiences for all who choose to participate.
Here are some astounding facts surrounding the honeybee:
• A hive can contain up to 70,000 bees in midsummer. There is one queen, 250 drones, 20,000 female foragers, 30,000 female house-bees, 5,000 to 7,000 eggs, 7,000-11,000 larvae being fed and 16,000 to 24,000 larvae developing into adults in sealed cells.
• The queen makes a mating flight during her early life during which she stores the sperm from up to twenty drones. Drones that mate with her die in the act. She can store the sperm for up to five years.
• Bees are busy outside of the hive from the onset of warm spring weather until the beginning of autumn. While flowers are in bloom they will collect nectar and turn it into honey, which they store in the hive to live on over the winter months.
• A worker honeybee in summer lives only six to eight weeks from the time she hatches as an adult bee. Before that, it takes just three weeks for her to develop from an egg.
• During the winter the bees rarely leave the hive but cluster together to keep warm. Winter bees live for six months and will occasionally go outside to defecate in order to keep the hive clean.
• Honey in its natural state can be in two physical states, clear (runny) or crystalline (set). When removed from the hive in late summer, it is warm, runny and clear. Once extracted some honey will crystallize (or set) within days, most naturally sets within weeks. There is no nutritional difference between the two.
• Because of its antiseptic properties, during the First World War honey was used to dress soldiers’ wounds. In the SecondWorld War it was used until penicillin became available. Honey is still claimed to be good for treating open sores and ulcers when used in a poultice.
• To collect 450 grams of honey, a bee might have to fly a distance equivalent to twice round the world. This is likely to involve more than 10,000 flower visits on perhaps 500 foraging trips.
• In a single collecting trip, a worker will visit between 50 and 100 flowers and return to the hive carrying over half her weight in pollen and nectar.
• Honey is stored on frames of wax inside the boxes of the hive. It is removed usually just once a year at the end of July and strained and bottled.
• A jar of honey weighs 454 grammes and a bee can carry about 0.04 grammes of nectar. But nectar is only about 40% sugar and honey needs to be about 80% sugar so the bee actually only carries about 0.02 grammes of honey on each trip.
• 22,700 bees are required to fill a single jar of honey. This sounds impressive but of course a colony of bees doesn’t just make one jar of honey. Over the year the queen will produce between 100,000 and 200,000 bees that will each spend between ten and twenty days collecting nectar.
• At its most productive a single colony of bees could produce around 800kg of honey, that’s almost a tonne!
The primary reasons to keep bees are of course honey production, pollination and environmental benefits. Honey may be the oldest sweet around, dating back more than eight thousand years. Bees help pollinate at least thirty percent of the world’s crops. Without these small hard working insects it would be impossible for many of our foods to reach the table. About four thousand bee species pollinate flowers in North America, which means no other pollinator has the degree of positive impact on environmental pollination as the honeybee.
This year U of T BEES has been very active in promoting urban beekeeping by participating in many public events such as farmers markets and hive tours open to any member of the U of T family and the public. The level of student interest is astounding and with it I hope to create a strong base to further the awareness surrounding the alarming rate of colony collapse disorder.
U of T BEES recently has undertaken to supervise a hive-mapping project by six University of Guelph students to map the existing hives within the City of Toronto. The idea is to indicate the clusters of hives and draw a three to five kilometer (as far as the honey bee flies out to collect pollen) circle to identify plant species available to the urban bee population. This will help in promoting more backyard food production and planting of bee friendly plant species.
There are many more plans in the works for 2015, so stay tuned for an update in the following months.
Pieter Basedow is the Chief Apiarist of the University of Toronto BEES