Urban beehives plus pollinator gardens makes tasty honey

bee on anemone
A happy bee on a Japanese anemone.

It’s no secret or surprise to gardeners that pollinators are essential to our gardens and, more importantly, to our food supply. One hopes more people, including non-gardeners, are learning this, too. Although we may know why healthy bee colonies are important, what can we do to help make bees happy? What’s the role of urban bee colonies? And just where, exactly, does honey come from?  These were all things I learned at the Toronto Botanical Garden’s honey harvest last week, one of the coolest field trips I’ve ever been on.

The Urban Beekeeping Series at the TBG is part of its adult education program, and it has become a very popular course, with 12 people enrolled in its first few years, and 24 enrolled this year. I was fortunate to see the instructors and students do an impromptu honey harvest, necessary because their hives had run out of room for the bees to make more honey — the bees have been making a lot of honey this year!

There’s still enough time left for the bees to fill up the hives and have another harvest this fall, but the students took only the frames that were at least 70 per cent full. Using a sharp knife, they removed the wax cappings from the honeycombs and extracted the honey in a machine that spins four frames at a time and uses centrifugal force to get the honey flowing. The honey is then filtered; the amount of filtering determines what grade the honey will be.

brushing off bees
The bees are gently brushed off the honey-filled frames. The green bottom boxes of the hives hold the brood and larvae, which is where the queen almost certainly is. The top grey boxes hold the honeycomb.

I tasted the actual honeycomb (really delicious) and different honey. Tasting honey from different hives showed my how a bee’s environment — and what plants they’re pollinating — affects flavour. The TBG’s honey, for example, tastes light and almost floral, indicative of the many flowers at the TBG. The beehives are situated in their pollinator garden, which was thoughtfully planned to give the bees a wide variety of plants to keep them happy. The nectar that the bees collect also determines the honey’s colour. The urban beehives on the roof of the Royal York in downtown Toronto, for example, produce darker honey, because their bees collect pollen from nearby ravines and Toronto Islands, where there’s plenty of goldenrod.

Urban beehives provide a home for bees, but they’re also important because of the education they provide.  Watching a honey harvest from a bee colony in my own city opened my eyes further — not only are bees important, they’re also really cool. The way that they take care of their home and their queen, how social they are, how they communicate, etc. are relatable to us humans, and I care even more about helping bees through my garden than I did before.

We can do as much good, if not more, by making pollinator gardens rather than have our own little beehives. Liz Hood, the TBG’s director of education, told me some interesting things about what’s going on with bees in other large cities as we chatted throughout the day. Bee advocacy groups in London, England, say that the city doesn’t need more bee colonies, rather people should s focus on pollinator gardens, because there is insufficient forage in London for bees to survive. London and New York City both have no regulations about beehives, so there’s been a huge increase in them, but often without the food source to back them up.

capping honeycomb
The wax “caps” on the honeycomb are lifted off with a sharp knife, so the honey can flow out freely.

Toronto, however, does have a regulations concerning urban beehives. Hives must be at least 100 feet (30 m) away from another property, which is why you won’t easily find urban beehives in Toronto other than in the TBG or on a roof. The students taking the urban beekeeping course at the TBG may plan to create their own hives in the country someday, or maybe some of them will eventually help more Toronto roofs become homes to bees. (I love the idea of a city of bees above us.) I asked one student, Victoria, why she got involved, and she told me that she does this because it’s contributing to the environment, in a concrete way.

Helping bees by tending urban beehives or by giving them plenty of food options is indeed a concrete way to help the environment. As gardeners, our eyes shouldn’t glaze over whenever we’re told the importance of growing pollinator-friendly plants. No matter the style or size of your garden, we’re all able to provide something for the bees.

There are lots of lists of pollinator plants; Garden Making included one in “The Power of Pollinators” in the Summer 2011 issue. Bees need a variety of plants at different stages in their lives. Other types of pollinators may have different preferences. Therefore, it’s best to have a mix of plants that provide both protein-rich pollen and nectar. Here are some other tips:

1) Try to leave part of your garden a little wild, and not be overly tidy. A small, overgrown section may make a great nesting site for pollinators.

extracting honey
Four frames full of honey are slotted in the extractor, which is manually spun so the honey flows out into the filters. The TBG’s honey usually ends up being Grade 2 (as Liz Hood, director of education, says: “No bee legs.”)

2) Plant drifts of colour, because not all pollinators can see all colours (bees can’t see red, while hummingbirds are drawn to it). Having several of one kind of flower in bloom will help the pollinator get what it needs in one place, and not have to fly around.

3) Use local, native plants. Our pollinators have evolved to use these plants as their food source.

4) Plan to have pollinator plants in bloom from April to November.

And, as a final note, if you have not tasted 100 per cent natural honey before, try it. The taste is so incredible and so different from what you may be used to, you’ll never buy honey from the grocery store again.

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  1. says

    Don’t forget the native pollinators. Honey bees are European imports which are nice for producing a low footprint local sweetener, but there are hundreds of important wild bees in Toronto. All of them live either in small colonies or alone and it’s much simpler for anyone to offer them some habitat and native flowers.

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