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Look up: Toronto is abuzz with rooftop beehives that boost the city's ecosystem

The honeybees whip around Hadi Salah's head, their delicate little wings flapping 10,000 times a second. Unfazed, the low-key, salt-and-pepper-bearded market intelligence researcher continues to pick at the hive, carefully removing layer after layer with a crowbar-esque piece of steel fittingly known as a hive tool. He wiggles the shoulders of his baggy, white bee suit slightly to readjust the mesh hood. 

At street level, scientists and entrepreneurs take turns holding the doors to MaRS Discovery District, the large-scale innovation centre on College St., while a collection of commuters leave nearby Queen's Park station completely oblivious to the buzzing beehives some 30-feet above. There are two of them, small towers of carefully stacked crate-like boxes painted white to reflect the light and keep them cool in the summer months. Each tower can house close to 50,000 bees, but Salah admits it's difficult to know how many are buzzing around MaRS' hives. 

It's the third year for the apiary set amongst the rooftop gravel and sporadic yellow piping. So far they've stuck with just the two hives.

"We lost a hive last winter," says Salah, but they replaced it this year.

The frigid winters are tough on the honeybees.

"They huddle together into small balls to keep the heat up and then they eat honey to survive," he says. 

Salah pulls out one of the cross sections of the hive, a wax board that the female honeybees use as a foundation to build their combs and fill them with honey. The males on the other hand are mostly just responsible for mating with the single queen in the hive. He points to a small decaying bee in one of the honeycombs, the scrunched up worker bee has become an artifact of time.

"When they're inside the honeycomb like that you know they starved to death trying to escape the cold," says Salah.

At the bottom of the hive – the brood and the queen – lies a mass grave littered with piles upon piles of bee carcasses. There are hundreds, thousands even. Being the highly hygienic neat freaks they are, some of the honeybees had begun dragging the corpses. Knowing it will take them all summer and burn up valuable energy, Salah gives them a hand by scraping out the remains.

Prior to launching the project, Salah, who spends most his days at MaRS working with entrepreneurs and analyzing emerging health tech, knew nothing about bees. He has rapidly become an enthusiast, devouring books and YouTube videos in an attempt to better understand the hives he takes care of. He's one of a revolving cast of volunteers who donate their time outside of their day jobs at the innovation centre to maintaining the beehives—partially out of intrigue, and partially as a conservation effort.

"Colony collapse disorder is getting worse," says Salah referring to the peculiar phenomenon where worker bees abruptly disappear from a colony. "Every year some beekeepers lose everything, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bees and if that happens crops suffer and that's bad for everybody." 

It also boosts food prices.

In a sense, honeybees are the bastions of biodiversity. Chief pollinators in a sprawling world of temperamental wildflowers and a growing push for local food sources. Sure, there are other pollinators, but honeybees are incredibly efficient foraging everywhere from nearby Queen's Park and the well-groomed University of Toronto flowerbeds, to High Park and the greenbelt slashing its way across Eglinton Ave. The ladies in his hive can travel anywhere from five to fifteen miles.

"Honey is a direct benefit of having bees, but the broader and more significant benefit is the pollination," says Tony Redpath, a senior fellow, advisor of cleantech partner programs at MaRS and a decade-long beekeeper. Redpath was instrumental in getting the beekeeping experiment off the ground. 

"It's just as true in cities as it is anywhere else, if you have fruit trees, flowers or gardens in your backyard you need bees or pollinators to pollinate them—and by and large it's going to be bees," he adds. Pillars of the urban agriculture movement—such as the community gardens like the ones that adorn Wychwood Barns, Dufferin Grove parks, and countless other community centres tucked in Toronto's array of neighbourhoods—rely on the prolific pollinators to ensure the vegetable spoils are bountiful at the end of the growing season. 

And in a city with a booming local food scene and a restaurant industry that emphasizes locally grown and raised product, organic homegrown honey is a desirable ingredient. 

"I think there is a recognition that comes with the local food movements—we are so isolated from our food sources in cities, having local bees is a good thing."

Excess honey from MaRS' hives, which is in theory organic given Toronto's pesticide ban, will be jarred in the fall and sold internally to help fund the ongoing project. 

But the innovation centre isn't the first to put an apiary on its roof and reap the benefits of the tasty honey. For more than a quarter of a century, the Paris opera house—Palais Garnier—has kept bees, selling the honey in its gift shop. Even in Toronto, the Fairmont Royal York fashioned its own apiary and has since expanded to six hives and produced over 800 lbs. of honey. 

Melanie Coates remembers when the hotel's chef at the time David Garcelon expressed interest in setting up the beehives. 

"I was leading their environmental committee and the chef was interested in providing locally grown products," says Coates. So in June of 2008, the pair teamed up with the locally-minded Toronto Beekeepers Cooperative and FoodShare to create the rooftop apiary. Since then, the Royal York has introduced honey into many of its recipes, started giving it as an amenity to guests, and even uses it in one of their beers on tap.

"They don't sell it, which is what makes it so cherished and prized," says Coates. "It's terrific honey. You can even call it prizewinning honey because it has won a number of accolades from the Royal Winter Fair."

Seeing growth in the industry, Coates left the hotel two years ago to launch BEEGrrl, a shop specializing in honey and beekeeping equipment located on Dundas St. West. She supplies honey to several Toronto restaurants and shops including The Westerly Kitchen and Bar on Roncesvalles Ave. and Bivy in Brockton Village. 

She's also one of the Toronto Beekeepers Cooperative's 45 members who helps manage the 30 hives throughout the city and educates urbanites by spreading the gospel of beekeeping. 

"This little idea has grown and other people are keeping hives. We're learning more about the importance of beekeeping," says Coates. "We've sparked this dialogue to care about our greater ecosystem." 

Although the effects of urban beekeeping aren't really quantifiable, all one has to do is take a glimpse around the bright flowers cutting through the concrete grey. The denouement of the honeybees' dance is there in the flourishing gardens dotting the neighbourhoods of little Italy and the blossoming florae lining the Victorian homes of the Annex, a pollinating waltz set to the cadence of their beating wings. 

 "You can spend hours here just looking at these girls," says Salah staring at the hives on MaRS' roof. He doesn't get tired of watching the way they flit about with their perfect, productive work ethic. Their tiny bee cities are a testament to the power of collaboration and continuous innovation. 

"Each baby bee has one goal in life and one task it's assigned – I don't know if they complain about the jobs they're given from birth, but I feel like they don't," says Salah. "They'll do it for a full two or three weeks and basically beyond that they become old ladies, their wings become a lot weaker and they accept they will die but they do it all for the hive—if only humans could work together like that." 

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose writing has appeared in The Toronto Star, the Vancouver Sun, The Calgary Herald, and Alternatives Journal among other places. He loves Toronto, but doesn’t like to sit still for too long and publishes stories of his adventures at whenwedrift.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter @WhenWeDrift.
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