BY Shanellie Desparois & Olivier Laurin
It’s been about five years since David Hinchliffe and his wife decided that they were going to try and raise their first beehive. He managed to keep his first hive alive in the first year and decided that it was a sign to keep ongoing.
“Yes, I believe it is helpful,” says Hinchliffe, explaining that he took up beekeeping because he truly thinks he is making a difference in helping the bee population in the city.
“I’ve never really come across any issues because I was willing and open to learning,” he says.
With no prior experience in beekeeping, he started doing research online and reading as many books as he could get his hands on. He emphasizes the importance of credible sources and that the only way to learn is by actually doing the job.
Education and the willingness to learn as much as you can before starting out as an urban beekeeper are crucial—however, some other urban beekeepers do not exercise the same diligence.
“I’ve heard tons of funny stories working with ApiHex, a beekeeping store, during the pandemic,” says Hinchliffe. “People think that if they buy a hive and put it on their property the bees will just show up.”
He even heard of people being rushed to the ER for allergic reactions after being swarmed because they improperly dismantled a hive.
There are over 177 species of wild bees that live and thrive in Canada. Our wild bees are mainly solitary and only active for about two to three weeks per year, versus the honeybee that is managed by a beekeeper year-round. When honeybees are brought into our environment it creates a competition between the bees for the same flowers and nectar.
It’s not very ecologically responsible to say ‘yeah we will bring in the bees, but we are not going to start planting more flowers in the city.
The Bees Act, the provincial law governing beekeeping, doesn’t include any bylaws that emphasize the importance of pollination, gardening or the number of beehives allowed in one area. That’s allowed Montreal to license over 2000 honeybee hives on the island since 2012 without an equivalent influx in flowers.
“It’s not very ecologically responsible to say ‘yeah we will bring in the bees, but we are not going to start planting more flowers in the city,” says MacInnis.
Miel Montreal is one of many resources available to the Montreal community that offers courses through their apiary school to people that want to learn about responsible urban beekeeping. They teach urban beekeepers to actively plant a variety of flowers, how to deal with parasites and how to help honey bees and wild bees co-exist.
“So for us, if people do practice beekeeping, it’s really important that they know what they’re doing,” says Charleen Kotiuga, Miel Montreal’s executive director. “Because it’s like an assistant to animals, and we have to make sure that they’re taken care of in a proper manner.”
Each honeybee hive can have up to 50,000 bees, and they can pollinate any flower, while some of our native wild bees rely on specific types of flower pollen and nectar to survive. This causes a huge problem for our wild bees: if the honeybees take all their resources, they will eventually starve.
Gail MacInnis, the pollination research scientist at Concordia University, agrees that care must be taken when introducing bees to a new environment.
“Imagine hypothetically you brought a bunch of cows into the city and you’re not going to provide food for them, they would be on people’s lawns eating grass,” she says. “Urban areas are less harsh than rural areas, especially in Montreal. We have pesticide-free bylaws, which is different than in rural areas where there are more stresses for bees because pesticide used on crops kills most bees,” says MacInnis.
Honey bees do die when they are employed as crop pollinators but this is a known fact in the industry. A beekeeper who is hired for pollination knows that he/her will lose bees and have to simply buy more.
“We are taking care of honeybees, we are managing them, they are in no way in danger, so I think the information about honeybees dying comes from crop situations–crops are stressful environments for bees,” explains MacInnis.
“Urban beekeeping is not necessarily the problem if the beekeeper is educated and is exercising responsible beekeeping practices,” emphasizes MacInnis.
“Do your research–put that in bold,” says Hinchliffe, explaining that urban beekeeping can be helpful but that new beekeepers need to register their hives with the city and to be aware of the rules in Montreal. Some of the rules include how far a hive can be from the street, and regulations on travelling between provinces with a hive because of the risk of parasites and crop-damaging beetles.
Kotigua has more advice for potential beekeepers.
“If you want to be an urban beekeeper it’s important to know all aspects beforehand, make sure there aren’t a lot of hives in the area and make sure you plant a garden–this is very essential,” she says.
She encourages people to have their hives rather than joining a collective of beekeepers, that way we can keep the beehive population minimal but she stresses that having a garden for every hive is the best way to help our pollinators responsibly.