Toronto

Helping our local bees with our balconies

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Shawn Caza and Melissa Berney found themselves sweet on the idea of raising bees after the two realized they had a mutual passion for the little buzzers.

Today, the Toronto west-enders have their honey making business called Toronto Honeys. They keep some of their hives at Fort York where they also sell their honey in the Canteen Museum Store.

“We both had an interest in sustainable food. Melissa had participated in a farm internship, and I had been involved in some community garden projects with Foodshare,” says Caza. “We both happened to meet beekeepers through our experiences.”

Since much of Toronto’s downtown is home to highrise dwellers, 416 Magazine asked Toronto Honeys how people with balconies can use their limited outdoor space to help sustain the bee population.

The Ontario government is trying to help nature’s pollinators by introducing restrictions on pesticides that can be harmful to the province’s bee population.

In fact, 2017 is the year the government hopes to meet its goal of reaching an 80 percent reduction in the number of hectares planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed.

The idea of recruiting balcony owners to get in on the act of helping pollinators began a few years ago with a special campaign launched by the David Suzuki Foundation. That one was aimed at Monarch butterflies.

Homeowners, including condo owners, and anyone with a balcony were encouraged to plant milkweed in their gardens or on their balcony container gardens. Milkweed is the Monarch’s favourite food. They’re pollinators, too, although to a lesser extent than bees.

The campaign has spurred the planting of more than 10,000 native milkweed plants in Toronto, according to the David Suzuki Foundation’s website.

But back to Caza and Berney, they set up their hives in 2012 after spending years learning about the art of urban beekeeping. In addition to their Fort York hives, they also keep a colony at Islington United Church.

“In the spring of 2012, we heard a report of a colony of bees in a forsythia bush that needed a new home. We collected the colony and gave them a hive to call home. That was the start of Toronto Honeys,” says Caza.

At first, Caza and Berney didn’t have a permanent home for the colony, so a beekeeping friend let them use one of his apiaries until they found suitable locations.

Caza refers to studies and his experience to determine the kinds of plants that are conducive to boosting bee numbers.

“Good news for those in high-rises is that some very popular flowers are herbs which tend to fit easily on a small balcony.  Catmint is a good option. One of its most wonderful qualities is that it blooms for such a long period, usually from June to September. Thyme, chives, oregano, sage, sedum, and astilbe are also great,” says Caza.

If your balcony is large, you can probably get some larger plants growing in containers. “Borage, bee balm or wild bergamot, echinacea, Russian sage, and butterfly bush are all well loved,” says Caza.

You also need to consider plants’ bloom times, he says. “There tend to be fewer flowers between July and the latter part of August. So flowers blooming at this time are some of the most helpful,” says Caza.

There’s little worry you’ll get stung by your balcony bees. Common sense should give you a good idea how to handle them. “Bees are not aggressive. Regarding the types of bees that live in colonies, like bumble bees and honey bees, they may become defensive when you disturb their nest.”

But when they’re out foraging and gathering food they’re fairly innocuous. “They are very focused on their goal and fly away to avoid confrontation with people,” says Caza.

“In all the years I’ve chased after bees on flowers with my camera I have not been able to convince a foraging bee to sting me.

“The only thing to keep in mind is to look before you grab. If you happen to surprise a bee when picking flowers, it may sting in self-defence if it feels it is being crushed.”

Caza notes that over the past 60 years or so humans and their ever-encroaching urbanization, along with industrial, agricultural practices (pesticides, herbicides, monoculture), have not been kind to bees. With reduced bio-diversity, bee food has “significantly decreased the habitats suitable for bees.”

Caza notes that in today’s farming conditions bees are in need by farmers in other locations to ensure pollination of crops. “The need to move colonies for pollination seems to be increasing,” he says. “In 2015 Ontario sent almost three times the number of hives as we did in 2010 to pollinate crops in Eastern Canada.”

A few facts about bees:

  • A strong hive may have 80,000-100,000 bees.
  • Bees are opportunistic, so they’re not going to fly up, say 15 stories, for just one balcony of flowers. But if there are lots of flowered balconies bees are more likely to make an effort to ascend.
  • Honeybees maintain a living colony throughout winter but with a lower population than they’d have in summer. They find a balance between the number of tiny mouths to feed and the number of adult workers needed to keep the hive warm. Adults generate warmth by vibrating powerful muscles which can detach from their wings.

For more about Toronto Honeys visit www.torontohoneys.com. For more on keeping bees visit the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association at www.ontariobee.com.

Video courtesy of Global News Toronto

 

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Dedicated reporter/photographer with expertise in covering daily news, politics, business, lifestyle and human interest features for print and online editions for 5 publications.

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