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Toronto home to 15 rented hives as cities become sweet spot for bee-keeping

Last Updated Apr 25, 2016 at 8:02 am EDT

A photo of urban beekeeping from the Alvéole website.

The usual summer buzz in cities, amplified by warm weather, backyard barbecues and busy patios, is somewhat louder this year as urban bee-keeping gains popularity.

A Montreal-based company is renting out beehives to people who are interested in making their own honey and to learn more about bee-keeping.

According to Alveole’s website, there are 15 beehive locations in Toronto, a couple in Quebec City and Maine, and more than 250 locations in Montreal, where the company started in 2012. Alveole says its hands are full with their existing locations, so they won’t be expanding to any more cities for the time being.

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Declan Rankin Jardin, one of the three founders of Alveole, says cities are actually a better place for bees than the countryside due to floral diversity, lack of other insect competition and a ban on pesticides.

This June, the company is opening up a new honey house in Toronto and Quebec City, where they can educate people on bees and guide them through the bee-keeping process. Alveole says the number of hives being rented out this coming season isn’t final yet, since many people start don’t start the process until later in the spring.

Montrealer Karen Hickey says she got into bee-keeping because she saw her neighbours doing it and thought it would be interesting to watch the bees in action, and that she was also concerned about the declining bee population. She got a hive from Alveole last summer and saw a prolific 30-kilogram honey payoff by fall.

It’s been amazing “just watching them in the hive, because we take it apart, and see how they function,” she said in an interview.

Once rented, the company places hives in either a backyard, a balcony or a flat roof. The renting period lasts one year, and costs $65 a month. Alveole staff does all the beehive maintenance.

There’s just one fly in the ointment: keeping a hive in backyards can violate some city bylaws. According to the Ontario Bee Act, a hive in Toronto has to be 30 meters away from the road. The Quebec Bees Act says they have to be 15 meters from roadways.

“It’s kind of an archaic rule that doesn’t really encourage urban bee-keeping,” says Rankin Jardin. “A lot of installations can be made that are within 30 meters that are totally legitimate and wouldn’t harm bees or people.”

But Rankin Jardin says the bylaws aren’t often enforced. In Montreal, where they have the highest number of hives, Alveole is on good terms with inspectors.

“It works more by complaint basis,” he says. If a neighbour is unhappy and lodges a complaint, inspectors are obliged to come and ask them to change the hive’s location.

But Rankin Jardin says that’s only happened twice so far, and is easily avoided if hives are set up and maintained properly.

A single installed Alveole hive, about the size of a small laundry basket, can produce 10 to 15 kilograms of honey for the homeowners. The hives, usually made of pine, have 10 frames in them, initially accommodating 10,000 bees. The number can balloon to a colony of 80,000 bees by end of the year; the number grows exponentially since the queen bee in each colony lays 2,000 eggs a day.

Rankin Jardin says bees are a good way to educate people in the city on pollination, how hard bees work and the ways in which they get food. He’s hardly alone in his passion for urban bee-keeping.

In 2008, the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto partnered with the Toronto Bee-keepers Co-operative to shed light on the decimating bee population by starting a bee-keeping program on its roof.

Today, the hotel has more than 350,000 bees at peak season, while the hotel chain has apiaries on top of 20 Fairmount hotels worldwide.