Busy Bees: Find Out How Our Urban Beehives Are Doing

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Beekeeper checking hive health

At the beginning of June, urban beehives were installed on the rooftops of our Hintonburg Connection and Westboro Connection properties. This exciting initiative was undertaken in partnership with Canadian beekeeping company Alveole. The urban beekeeping specialists have installed and managed hundreds of hives across Canada and the U.S. Their work helps boost declining bee populations (which is critical for the health of our ecosystem) and reconnect people to nature.

We talked to Alveole beekeeper Dominic Lizée-Prynne to get an update on how our bees are doing, what these incredible creatures will be up to over the next few months, and how our new tenants will positively impact our buildings and community.

How are the bees doing?

Since installing one beehive at Hintonburg Connection and two at Westboro Connection, Dominic is pleased to report that they’re all doing very well. She adds that Hintonburg Connection’s hive is “probably the strongest one that I have from the three hives I’m managing”.

Inspections have been done every three weeks to check on the health of the hives. Dominic looks for four important things:

  • That the queen bee is laying enough eggs to support the population.
  • If the hive has enough room for the bee population to grow.
  • Whether or not enough honey is being produced and if there’s enough storage room for it.
  • The temperament of the bees (gentle bees are less protective of their hive).

On all four fronts, Dominic is happy with the progression. She says the honey production is on track and is pleased that all three hives have gentle bees – which no doubt makes her job just a little easier!

What are the bees’ living accommodations like?

“The number of bees in a hive fluctuates throughout the season. In the wintertime when they are not very active it drops down to about 5,000 bees. At the peak of summer, it’s about 50,000 bees,” says Dominic. Urban bees have a much higher winter survival rate than rural bees (62.5% compared to 40%). You might be surprised to learn that bees in urban locations also produce more honey than rural bees, too.

To give you a better idea about how beehives work, Dominic explains that they have three groups of bees:

  • The lone queen bee is the colony’s mother and responsible for producing the entire colony’s population.
  • Worker bees, who are all female, represent the bulk of the hive’s population.
  • Male bees (known as “drones”), whose main purpose is to contribute to the reproductive process of other colonies (to prevent inbreeding).

What is a day in the life of an urban beehive like?

Dominic breaks down what an average day for the residents of an urban beehive looks like. She says the queen bee spends her day solely laying eggs – up to 2,000 a day in the peak of summer. She actually lays her own body weight in eggs in a single day!

The aptly named worker bees, who represent 95% of the colony’s population, do the bulk of the daily tasks. “Depending on where they are at in their life, they’ll be doing different jobs. If the bee is younger, she will be in the hive taking care of the baby bees and the queen, and also producing the honey. If she is at the end of her life, she’s usually going out foraging for nectar, bringing it back to the hive, and doing that as much as possible to maximize the amount of nectar that’s coming in,” she says.

Honeybees are built to fly about 5 kilometres around their beehive to get food.

How often is the honey harvested and how does the process work?

Dominic says the harvesting process only occurs once a year and expects to harvest from her hives at the beginning of September. She likes the fact that only having one or two hives at each building gives her the opportunity to spend a little more time with them when doing her inspections and for the harvesting process.

Beehives are made up of stacks of boxes called “supers”. During harvest, Dominic moves a screen from the top super and places it at the bottom super where the queen resides. The screen’s odour is unpleasant to the bees, which causes most of them to leave the honey supers on top. The supers containing the honey are removed and any remaining bees are brushed back into the hive to ensure that no bees present a risk to residents when the supers are being transported through the building.

How will our bees’ honey be used and how do urban beehives improve our community?

The amount of honey harvested from a hive will vary from year to year, but a beehive should produce an average of about 15 kilograms of honey. The plan for Colonnade BridgePort is to sell the fresh honey to tenants with the proceeds going to a local charity, ideally one that supports bee preservation efforts.

Beekeeper inspecting hive health

“In terms of improving the community, one great thing urban beehives do is provide a catalyst for getting people within these buildings who don’t necessarily know each other to connect. There are activities like workshops created and people can get together and talk about the bees and things like the honey that they’ve gotten from their building’s hive(s). The beehives create a common link because they belong to everybody,” says Dominic.

Rooftop beekeeping programs like this bolster the sustainability of a crucial part of our ecosystem. Bees are responsible for pollinating much of the food we eat, which is just one of the many ways they contribute to our planet’s environmental wellness.

Having the honeybees on the same premises as people’s homes is also an effective way to connect people to nature and educate them about the important role bees play in the ecosystem.

Do the beehives pose any dangers to the tenants?

Dominic says that there is little risk to anyone living in buildings with rooftop beehives. Honeybees are surprisingly docile, which is part of the reason they’re used for these programs.

While it’s true that the bees can sting, they die as soon as they do. As a result, they have no intention of stinging anybody because then they can’t contribute to their community. Only the worker bees and queen bee have stingers.

What can we expect from the beehives over the fall and winter?

After the September honey harvest, activity in the beehives will slow down and Dominic will make sure they’re prepared for the fall and winter.

The queen bee will significantly reduce the number of eggs she lays in order to shrink the hive’s population. As part of the effort to limit the number of bees that reside in the hive over the winter, the worker bees will start “kicking out” the male bees since their role has little value to the community during the fall and winter. The goal is to minimize the number of bees in the hive that will need to feed over the next several months.

Once the honey harvest is finished, Dominic won’t open the hives until next year. This helps the bees maintain the heat within the hive as the weather gets colder.

Honeybees don’t hibernate over the winter, as most people think. They actually stay together as a ball in the hive and move around, eating honey in different sections of their home. The honey gives them the energy to shake their bodies very quickly, which creates enough heat to keep the hive at a temperature of 35 degrees Celsius.

With enough food and a cozy home, the bees are able to make it through the winter. Once spring comes and the flowers start blooming, the bees will get back to their hard work that benefits all of us.

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