A sure sign of spring at Toronto's Shangri-La Hotel is the arrival of Alexandre McLean. But he's not your average guest; and his luggage is definitely out of the ordinary.
For a second season, McLean is installing the honeybees in the "B-Wall" at the Shangri-La's third-floor Bosk terrace. The custom-designed wall, a collaborative effort by Alvéole and Montreal-based L'Atelier Gris and developed in partnership with Maison Birks, sits in a quiet corner of the garden, where throughout spring and summer, diners can step up to a porthole to view the honeybees in action.
A small crate of "leftover" bees is destined for the CBC building a few blocks down the road.
With greater public awareness of the plight of honeybees, demand for urban beekeeping services is on the rise. There has also been an increase in startups in the sector, both to meet demand, and help protect the honeybees.
McLean founded Alvéole with Declan Rankin Jardin and Étienne Lapierre, to help increase urban beekeeping in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City, after beekeeping in Manitoba together. Each spring the team makes its rounds to re-install honeybees for a client list that includes RBC, Lush Cosmetics, ALDO Shoes, Cirque du Soleil, the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), Desjardins and SSQ Financial Group.
The inspiration came when McLean, who has been around beekeeping all his life, heard about people in New York City setting up hives to produce honey for sale. "It started as a friendly project," he said. "Within the first winter I realized I had to think of it in terms of a business model."
McLean said he doesn't measure success by profit. "When business is good, it's good for the bees; and that's what matters," he said.
When business is good, it's good for the bees; and that's what matters.
However, if the business was to survive, the team had to figure out a way to monetize it. They figured the best way to fund the project was to ask for 50 per cent up front to help pay for the equipment and setup. "The first year money came from honey bee products," McLean said. "Now our model relies less on production and more on contract-based services."
He estimates 60 per cent of business is with commercial clients, and the rest with individual residents. Including setup, maintenance, harvesting and honey production, the service costs range from $5,000 to $75,000 a year for corporations, and about $800 for small-scale residential projects. A hive produces an average of 22 pounds of honey, which at urban prices yields about $300. The taste and colour of honey varies with neighbourhoods and available flowers. This year the team will install and/or service approximately 1,000 hives. Depending on the jurisdiction, municipal bylaws require hives to be anywhere from 15 to 30 metres (vertically or horizontally) from a home or road.
The increase in publicity around bees in recent years has played a role in Alvéole's success, McLean said. "Bees are getting a ton of attention in the past few years. Even the White House announced it was going through major changes in policy in terms of planting; and General Mills' Bring Back the Bees Campaign has drawn way more attention."
- A Queen bee in a managed colony lives about three to five years
- A hive can have anywhere from 40,000 and up to 80,000 individual bees in the summer
- All worker bees are female; all drones are male
- There are 7,000 beekeepers in Canada operating a total of 600,000 hives and producing 75 million pounds of honey a year
- Two-thirds of honey in Canada is produced in the Prairies
- A single beehive can produce more than 100 lbs. of extra honey (i.e. the part that is harvested)
- They are solitary in nature and not prone to stinging
- They are three times more effective at pollinating plants than other pollinators
- Each nest contains eight to 10 eggs
- There are more than 4,000 species native to North America
Emma Eriksson, marketing director, cereal and promotions and partnerships, for General Mills Canada in Mississauga, Ont. said interest in the Canadian-born campaign vastly exceeded the company's expectations. "It took us by surprise. Our original goal was to give away 35 million wildflower seeds in partnership with Veseys Seeds in Prince Edward Island. We thought that was a lofty one. So far we have given out more than 115 million."
With the numbers continuing to climb, General Mills Canada's counterparts in the U.S. are taking notice. "We feel like we really hit a nerve with consumers who are excited to get involved and make a difference," Eriksson said.
To fuel that interest, Alvéole recently launched a web service where you can register for instructions on how to set up a hive, or purchase beekeeping kits.
With a staff of 20 stretched to the limit, McLean has his sights on a new model that will allow for remote monitoring and training. "There's a lot of interest from people outside of the cities, so we're looking into technologies like smart hives to monitor and manage hive activity from a distance. An investment on the tech side will allow us to reach more people and places," he said.
Dauphin, Man.-based Durston Honey Farms is at the forefront of smart hive development in Canada. The family-run honey production business partnered with researchers from Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to building research-based partnerships, and local software firm Function Four, to create highly sophisticated remote sensors that can see inside beehives using an iPhone or iPad. Rollout is set for this summer.
Durston has more than 3,500 hives throughout Manitoba and parts of British Columbia producing an average 750,000 pounds of honey a year. In addition to the day-to-day statistics - bee populations, type of pollen entering the hive, and when honey is ready for harvesting - the sensors act as an early-warning system for mite infestations, vandalism or wildlife damage.
"It will certainly help with bee health," said Allan Campbell, head apiarist at Durston. "There are miniature microphones so you can actually listen to specific sounds and detect the presence of varroa mites that can be so devastating to bee populations. The worst year was 2013 when there was a 90 per cent die-off. But we have rebounded."
While the honeybee population is making a comeback, pollinators (or native wild bees) continue to struggle for survival. "The issue is much larger than honey," General Mills' Eriksson said. "We have an amazing opportunity now to make our campaign more broad reaching for next year to support pollinators."
To that end, General Mills recently announced a North American initiative to work with oat farmers to dedicate about 120 hectares of land for pollinators to do their job by 2020.
FRHI Hotels & Resorts, the owner of the Fairmont chain, is a pioneer in promoting urban beekeeping on a global scale. "So far we have installed 20 apiaries at 20 properties around the world," said Alix Bloom, vice-president of global communications and partnerships. "We have bee butlers, bee teams and food and beverage teams that are hugely involved in introducing local honey to our menus, and sharing their knowledge with guests and the local community."
Two years ago, the company decided to do the same for the pollinators. "Native wild bees are very different and need protecting. For one thing they're three times more effective at pollinating plants; yet they don't have a queen bee or colony to protect them. They're solitary bees," she said.
FRHI has been busy adding bee hotels made from older building materials, as well as recyclable and organic materials to its rooftops. "Everyone in engineering at our hotels has the blueprints and a basic framework for designing a bee hotel," Bloom said. Partners in FRHI's pollinator bee efforts include Burt's Bees, Sustainable TO, the Pollinator Partnership and River of Flowers.
Pollinators are simply a new kind of guest in need of a place to stay, Bloom said. "Remember, these are strictly worker bees. What better way to protect them than by providing a lovely room where they can get a good night's sleep so they can work hard the next day?"