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Urban Beekeeping Transcript

Beekeeping probably seems like it's only done on a large, commercial scale. Chris Kirouac and Blake Retter discuss the importance of urban beekeeping.


 

Full Transcript

Avery Parkinson

Welcome to In the Weeds, a podcast dedicated to discussing everything to do with food sustainability in urban agriculture, indoor growing, food insecurity, resource consumption and anything else we think is exciting or important. I'm your host, Avery Parkinson.

Avery Parkinson

Today we're going to be talking about beekeeping, but not just your typical run of the mill operation, you know, the kind of large scale system that produces the honey we eat. Instead, we're going to be discussing urban beekeeping. We first spoke with Blake Redder, beekeeping resources manager at Alveol, a company that installs and manages hives in cities across Canada, the US and Europe. 

Blake Redder

Well, I have an English literature degree, so naturally I became an urban beekeeper. But yeah, some common threads in my life have involved working in education, traveling, some travel and exploration, and then working outside. But I've always been like a very earnest person who likes bugs a lot. So when I got the opportunity to work for an urban beekeeping company, it was like a dream come true. My role right now is the beekeeping resource manager, which sounds very made up, but essentially what my team's work involves is we're kind of defining what Alveole’s approach to beekeeping is, and we're trying to build a structure around that, structuring our beekeeping operations, kind of analyzing our successes and our failures, and with that kind of continually improving our practices and in terms of what that actually looks like. I manage three field specialists who are kind of like our most skilled beekeepers, and each of them is assigned to a different country. So we've got one for Canada, one for the US, and one for Europe. And each of them, they travel around to the different cities and support the teams there. And together we kind of oversee all the beekeeping training that happens within the company. 

Avery Parkinson

What is urban beekeeping and how does it differ from traditional beekeeping? 

Blake Redder

I'm going to speak kind of generally because every beekeeping operation is totally different. And inherently they have different approaches and different goals. I think in general, most beekeeping enterprises kind of exist in the spectrum. And on one end of the spectrum, you've got your more like commercial beekeepers, and on the other hand, you'd call that more like a hobby beekeeper or small scale beekeeper. And each of them kind of have different things that are associated with them. That's not always true. So, for example, commercial beekeepers people tend to think of them as being more like an industrial farm in some ways where we're using pesticides to control problems in our hives, to control the varroa mites who are a problem, migratory beekeeping, things like that. And then on the other end of the scale, hobby beekeeping tends to be associated more with, like, organic approaches, whatever that means in beekeeping. The reality is that at each end of the spectrum, there are totally different philosophical approaches to beekeeping. So there's a lot of different varieties. But I think where urban beekeeping fits into it is that we are keeping these in the same way that many other enterprises are. We have some additional kind of, like, accessibility challenges to overcome because our hives are located on rooftops, like all over the city. So there's a lot of traffic and trying to find parking and navigating your way up onto the roof and being trained to work safely on a rooftop. And it's quite different from traditional beekeeping in that sense, where normally you can just pull up to a yard with 50 hives or more and do all of your work and leave, whereas for us, it's a lot more kind of spread out and logistically more challenging. 

And then for us, in terms of the hive management itself, we have some different considerations in the city because we're in such close contact with people all the time. We really have to make sure we're managing the hives in such a way where we're preventing swarming, and we're making sure that we respond really quickly if there are any issues with disease, because that can spread really quickly to other operations. And ultimately, I think it's more our goals are quite different. So for us, honey production is definitely important, but for a typical beekeeping enterprise, that's how you make your money as a beekeeper. It could also be through producing new hives to sell to other beekeepers or Queen breeding or producing wax. But most beekeepers really rely on honey as their main driver of business. 

But for us, we kind of describe ourselves as these weirdly social beekeepers where our goal is really to give people experience of the hive and invite people to come out and open a hive together. So we really want to bring people close to the hive, because when we do that, we get to kind of tap into the sense of wonder that people get when they work with bees and facilitate this kind of connection with nature in the city.

Avery Parkinson

As most people know, bees are an incredibly important part of our ecosystem and also our agricultural processes. Can you elaborate a little bit more about why this is the case? 

Blake Redder

Yeah, absolutely. Well, it's a question that comes up so much for people. I think there's an important distinction to make between honey bees and, like, native or wild bees, because they're both involved in those two things in agriculture and ecosystems, but in different ways. So honey bees specifically are critically important for agriculture because they can provide pollination services for modern farming in the sense that the way that we farm now really depends on having pollinators that can be mobile and brought into the environment, because farming environments today aren't really hospitable to, let's say, natural pollinators who could live in that ecosystem? I think once upon a time that was more the case. You would have your hedge rows and farms weren't existing on such a large scale and using so many pesticides. And in that case, you'd probably have some pollination being offered by wild bees, but today, that's not really the case. Things like almonds, a lot of crops really depend on honeybees being shipped from other places in the country to that farmers field so that they can specifically pollinate that crop. So they're really like our most reliable option for pollination today. And in that sense, they're incredibly important. On another sort of perspective, they provide one of the healthiest and most delicious natural sweeteners in the world. So raw honey, it has antioxidants, it has prebiotic properties that they feed your beneficial gut microbes, and they contain, like, vitamins. So honey is an amazing product that only honeybees can create. And beyond that, even they produce wax, which is used in so many different ways, but obviously for candles, for molds, they produce propolis. So there are so many products that you can get from a beehive that are all very beneficial for humans. And that's why honey beekeeping, it's a multi billion dollar industry, right. So in terms of their role in ecosystems, honeybees can definitely pollinate wild plants, and in that sense, they can lead to increased seed production or fruit set that sort of wild creatures can take advantage of. So in some cases, you might see honey bees used for, like, landscape restoration. But the bees that are most important to natural ecosystems are those native bees and wild bees that I mentioned before. They've evolved those relationships, all those plants, over an incredible amount of time. And so they are like a naturally integrated part of those ecosystems. And in that sense, they are pretty important to the functioning of all ecosystems in the world, pretty much. And they're not necessarily honeybees. Some of them are solitary little sweat bees that the average person would probably mistake for, like a fly. They're just like these little guys. Then you've got your big bumblebees that most people know, and they live in a social setting like honeybees do. There's an incredible diversity of native Bee species in the world, and in Canada alone, I think it's something like around 4000. So they're really important. 

Avery Parkinson

That was Blake Redder from Alveole. For more information about them and their work, please visit www.alveole.buzz.

Avery Parkinson

We also spoke with Chris Kirouac, who along with Lindsay Nikkel, is one of the founders of Bee Project Apiaries, an organization that offers full service beekeeping in Winnipeg's urban center. 

Chris Kirouac

I grew up in Winnipeg, which is sort of the major city of Manitoba, and I did grow up in the middle of the city and sort of like a middle class neighborhood, really nothing special, but I got to go out to family farms often. So, like, pretty much every holiday, every long weekend, was celebrated at the farm where my mom grew up, and they continued to actively farm. So I had a bit of an interest and a little more - although I didn't know it at the time - a little bit more of a knowledge of where our food was coming from, how it was produced compared to the average urban kid. And in University, I met Lindsay, who eventually would partner on Bee Project with me. And she actually grew up with a farming family. But like so many farm families, she had one parent that worked off the farm. Her mum was a teacher, and her dad worked really hard to grow the farm and to support the family in that way. So she had a good deal of background. Ironically, I always had the idea I wanted to farm. Lindsay had the idea that she wasn't interested. And so when we met at University, she was like, I'm over that, and I'm going to be a nurse or whatever works in the city. And we both started realizing that there was developing a bit more of a disconnect between the urbanites and a knowledge of where our food came from and issues around its production and food security.

And so one of the problems with that is not just that they don't know, but urban centers have a huge diversity of people who are living there and a lot of purchasing and political power to sway things like policies to drag feet or push policy on things like clean water and on chemical use and different things. And so we started in our University time, sort of dabbling with small agriculture projects and small food production projects. The project, we eventually were able to take a course at the University, just a short one to give us a bit more tools specifically for that. And we just started it sort of as a hobby. And the more we did it, the more we spoke to people at farmer’s markets and stuff where we were selling honey. Then we realized that we were educating people and connecting people to bees. And this magic of the pollinators was really what we were enjoying. More so than just the beekeeping work, which actually could sometimes be a little isolating for an urban kid standing out in a field outside of the city for hours on end looking through your hives. They were fascinating. 

But the conversation being with other people, which I had grown up with, so that was sort of lacking. And so both Lindsey and I realized through urban gardening and urban beekeeping that there were these huge steps that could be made for developing a bit more of an appreciation for the local food system, some more ability to do it for yourself and procure food security in that way because you're able to produce it yourself, but also for urbanites to begin to understand a bit better food policy, food issues. And yeah, so that's sort of how we started with the project. We started keeping bees, selling honey, direct marketing sort of thing. And then we started putting hives in the city and came up against bylaws that forbid it. So we spent a number of years there. Lindsay was very instrumental in that. And that's why, although it's talking about myself here, I have to include her because she's very instrumental in allowing us to, in a collaborative way, work with and sort of against the city in order to change these bylaws. And so after about 2012, we started, I think, the first legal hives went in in 2016. And then at that point, it was only legal in the downtown of Winnipeg as a pilot project. And then the following year, after a good deal of success with the first year, it went citywide with a permit. So you had to have a permit. And most jurisdictions have slightly different rules on how beekeeping works in the city. But in Winnipeg specifically, we have to have a permit. And so from that point on, Bee roject's focus was on installing hives in the city, maintaining them in the most public way possible, trying to get people to engage in conversation by using the honey bee as a sort of a tool to engage people about discussions about protecting the environment and how our food security relies on this healthy environment. 

Avery Parkinson

What are some of the biggest threats to Bee populations? 

Chris Kirouac

Without pollinators, our yields would drastically drop. And it's estimated that globally, one third of food production would be lost if we lost bees or didn't have populations suitable for pollinating and for certain crops, it would be almost completely lost. And there are some native or wild bees that aren't managed by people that only pollinate one or two flowers. And those flowers can only be pollinated by one or two pollinators. And so in those special situations, those are in threat too. And just for diversity of our ecological diversity and then obviously, for food security across the world, we do need a healthy pollinator population. Honeybees are used in the majority of the world's countries where agriculture is practiced on all the continents, basically, except for Antarctica, there are honeybees at this point. And because native pollinator populations are much lower than we would need them, and because honeybees are much easier to manage at large volumes than many other bees, they're the main one for many of our crops. And so the things that have started to threaten them, which are parasites or diseases that have been introduced from one country to another and now spread globally, as well as habitat lost pesticide residue or pesticide use and climate change even can be is now more of a concern. So there are many issues. And so we sort of thought that it was an interesting thing looking back. So Lindsey and I, who started the project, are nurses. And so we had looked at sort of the public health parallels between some of the failings of how we were keeping our honey bees. This is about 15 years ago when we were first getting educated and some of our failings or things that we had learned the hard way through human health. Some of these would be things like overuse of antibiotics, so prophylactic use of antibiotics eventually leading to resistance. Also, the inability to properly quarantine things is now something that Covid has shown us. So diseases and parasites and different things coming over because we're doing trade from country to country, and we sort of forget that sometimes you can introduce problems as well as the goods that you need to introduce. 

So there were a bunch of things that we thought were very interesting, such as a well balanced diet, healthy environment. These things are all important for humans and for bees. So there were all these cool tie-ins between human populations and bees and what we could learn from each other or from those two domains. So, yeah, I guess the importance really boils down to, though, that we need the bees not for honey, which everybody thinks because we make honey from our hives. But the real reason we need bees is for pollinating our food crops. What are some of the social benefits of urban beekeeping if you're thinking of taking care of a hive in the urban environments, beekeepers, especially once they get a little more attuned to what's going on with the bees and have a little bit of experience. Most beekeepers talk about falling into, like, Bee time. So you're in a hive and all of a sudden what you figured it's been five minutes, you've been in the hive for an hour. It's almost like a Zen like state. So you're going through the hive, the bees around you, although they're ignoring you and going about their work. If you're doing it properly, you're kind of captivated in this buzz and the outside world sort of disappears. It's a huge connection to nature right within the city. And then sharing that experience with people can really cause it to feel more of those social benefits. So the education that people get, the sense of faculty or the ability to do something for oneself and to sort of understand things in a different way is huge. Cooking with the harvest itself because it often takes more than one person is a great thing to share. And you end up talking and chatting around the work that you're doing because the honey harvest, for example, is very repetitive, magical but repetitive once you're doing it a lot. And so it's a great project to bring friends or family over for the harvest and then later on to enjoy things like the food that's produced with it, the baking, and so on. So those things are all great, and I guess it would depend on how far you would want to take it with if you're able to gift or donate your harvest and that sort of thing. Most people who do beekeeping in the urban setting aren't looking at it as a commercial enterprise. So the idea isn't that you're producing jars of honey to sell. You're either doing it because of sort of the intrinsic value of it. You want to increase the number of pollinators in the environment or you're doing it for the experience, that sort of thing. Those are usually the values people are looking for. The honey is this beautiful byproduct of that. But a lot of the partners that we work with and where we'll keep highs on their rooftop, and they will hire us sort of to do that. They actually don't even keep the honey. Many of them donate it to either food banks or different organizations that can use it, soup kitchens and so on. So we can have a huge social sort of upside. And because even in the urban environment, hives usually produce more honey than one family or a small group could use. There's usually enough room to keep some and to donate a gift and that sort of thing. So we can create a sense of community around it, for sure. And that was one of the things for us initially. That was a big point of the magic. So those days looking at the hives with friends or acquaintances and harvesting and kind of learning together.

Avery Parkinson

What about for people who don't necessarily want to own or manage highs but still want to be friendly? 

Chris Kirouac

Despite the fact that we specialize in installing and maintaining hives in the urban center, we know that having a Beehive isn't for everybody. And even people who love bees might not want to hive for certain reasons or have the space to accommodate it. And so there are lots of ways to be bee friendly or to be abeeB ambassador without having your own hive. Those would be things like we talked about political power. So pushing your city to have a low pesticide policy to allow gardening and food production on your public land. So we have a lot of land in Winnipeg that are parks or kind of city spaces along schoolyards and stuff that all summer aren't used for anything. Those could be used for gardening, which allows for food sources for bees in your own space. Gardening with a diversity of flowers and using low or no pesticides is great. And then lastly, supporting your local beekeepers, those guys at the farmers market that are the most likely to be producing their honey in a sustainable method compared to the stuff you find at Superstore, not to pick on Superstore, but on your local supermarket. Sorry, those are all great ways to support the bees, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Yeah. So definitely you can look up different ways to be friendly with your yard or your garden or your rooftop without having a beehive. And that's just something we want to remind people of. What are some of the potential drawbacks of urban beekeeping, or are there any ways in which it could be done wrong? On a bee level, there's a lot of things with the urban environment that the bee likes. The bees like the diversity of floral sources that we have. There's generally not as much of a monoculture in the city as there is in the countryside. There's the fact there's heat island, which is a concept where the city is often a few degrees warmer in the spring and in the fall. That can sometimes extend the blooming season a little bit, which is nice for bees. Generally speaking, our urban environments are semi forested. If you look at them from above, there's a lot of wind break and stuff due to buildings in the forest, just the urban forest, and that can be great for the bees. The winds are cut down and lower water sources are always important. 

Most of our cities have great water sources around, built around rivers and stuff, but hives do need to have water provided for them. Sometimes when we talk about urban beekeeping being done improperly or wrong, or however you'd like to phrase that, it's often forgetting the reasons for urban beekeeping. So if you're wanting to produce large volumes, like massive amounts of honey, the best thing to do is to do that in the countryside where you don't mind having more hives. Like many, many hives in one area, you might use monoculture crops to do that because there's tons blooming at once. But those things are sort of the idea. And the philosophy behind the city beekeeping is that it allows us a chance to do things for philosophical reasons. So using the organic beekeeping methods in allowing the bees to enjoy a diverse diet, keeping the hives at a population where they won't swarm because swarms. As an aside to your question, swarms are a natural process where a hive splits in half and half of the hive flies away to find a new home in the city. That can be a big bother and a bad PR moment. And so you want to manage your hive in a way that the likelihood of that happening is greatly reduced. So these things as you learn kind of urban beekeeping, and as long as you're looking at it as not a way to replicate what's done in the country, but to do it differently. And as an urban project, then those things are generally respected pretty well. We don't know many stories of people unless they did something by accident, like a beginning beekeeper letting their hive get way too strong and just not knowing how to control swarms. But usually people with experience do a bang up job of keeping a hive in the urban environment, and neighbors don't get upset. And neighbors generally see the benefit and really appreciate the little jar of honey that they get as a thank you or a gift at the end of each season. 

Avery Parkinson

How do you hope urban beekeeping plays a role in the future of how food is produced? 

Chris Kirouac

We hope that the work we've done has shown an example of how food production in the urban environment can be done in a respectful and a respectful and productive way that it can lead to community building and healthier communities. So that's one side of it. And I think that it can work as a huge compliment to the urban gardening movements that are going on, the vertical farming movements that are going on in cities, as well as things like backyard chickens and stuff. So in Winnipeg, where we've been based, that's a huge contentious thing for some reason, saying that you're going to have a backyard hen, it makes you people are like, oh, they're not. There is no respect. What are they doing? Yeah, it's just a little too out there for people, but it's really not that out there. And the beehives have shown that we need to think outside the box sometimes, and that allowing the bylaws to be changed to allow beekeeping has been a really positive experience for many people and for little community groups and stuff. So that's one thing. But also, I think for us originally, there was this philosophical thing that you should be able to produce food for yourself where you are if you're doing it in a way that respects your neighbor. So the trick was kind of proving with the bylaw changes that we were respecting the city's citizens and that we were adding to their life, not taking away from it, that there was no need to be fearful and that having highs and gardens throughout the city instead of grass and empty space was not the city becoming less beautiful or less well kept, but the opposite sort of. And so that was part of it. And then overall for our food, we do hope that our work allows people to become more educated when they look to push for policies from our politicians or when they look to support things with their purchasing power at farmers markets, at grocery stores and online shopping. So even our grocery shopping is going online, it seems so. We have a lot of power as urbanites with more than 80% of our Canadian population living in large urban centers, there's a lot of power to push for the way we want to see society, the way that we want to see our food production. And I hope that overall, we're able to work with farmers, beekeepers, and the different sort of stakeholders to build a sustainable, sustainable food system for the future and to appreciate more what Canada has for food production without so much looking at the things we have to import, because of course, we have to import certain things, coffee to some degree, like wine, there aren't the same developed areas, but we're finding that a lot of things, even wine, we do have some areas where we can produce these things. And I think if Canadians know what's here and some of the possibilities and they just become more educated, they maybe will support those endeavors more, and there will become more of an interesting diverse food production from Canada. 

Avery Parkinson

That was Chris Kirouac from Bee Project Apiaries. For more information about them and their work, visit beeproject.ca.

Avery Parkinson

We hope you enjoyed this episode of our podcast. If you're interested in learning more about Just Vertical and our work, follow us @justvertical on Twitter, @justvertical on Instagram or visit our website, www.justvertical.com. Stay tuned for the next episode where we'll be discussing more about urban agriculture, food, sustainability, or really anything else important or exciting that we feel like talking about.

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