Being an Urban Beekeeper

As I have written about before, attending culinary school had been a dream of mine for many years and I am so blessed to have made that dream a reality this year. Another such dream-come-true happened when I recently spent a gorgeous Monday morning on a Toronto rooftop getting to know the brains and brawn at Rosedale Honey — one of a myriad of Toronto’s urban apiaries. Needless to say, it was very cool.

Rosedale Honey

It all started when we were asked to write a blog post in my Theory of Food II class to visit a farmer or producer of some sort to better understand the relationship between proximity to ingredients and their quality. I’d already been berry picking at a farm outside Brampton and apple picking at an orchard not far from Peterborough so I was keen to try something different. Enter the urban beekeeper! I’ve always been fascinated with bees (as I think everyone should be, given their immense stature in the ecosystem we rely on so heavily) and absolutely love honey and beeswax-based products. Whether it’s my trusty lip-balm on a dry day, a squirt from my amber-hued bottle of unpasteurized Ontario field honey into my afternoon tea, a large spoonful directly into the mouth to sooth a hoarse throat, or a gentle wipe to cool a burn, I rely on honey and its infinite properties for so many applications. Heck, even the simple pairing of honey, garlic and lemon on a roast chicken can elevate a simple weekday dinner into something splendid.

Finding an urban beekeeper to visit was actually a simple task, thanks to the organized efforts of the Ontario Beekeepers Association’s website listings of members . I was pleased to find 8 producers listed in Toronto alone. After going through all 8 profiles, I narrowed down my search to two in particular whose profiles piqued my interest and decided to make some phone calls. I was fortunate that the very first person I called, Greg Van De Mark from Rosedale Honey, ended positively with an invitation to visit the apiary the very next day as they were due for a hive inspection! I was overjoyed. Greg had even offered to give me a taste of some honey right from the hive! I got off the phone and jumped around my apartment with joy.

Ladder to hives on the roof

Finding my way to Rosedale Honey was simple since I live a brief subway ride away from them. I walked up to the normal-looking house and was unsure if I had the right place since it looks pretty unassuming. Thankfully, Greg answered my call and let me into what I later found out was his home that he shared with 2 room mates and their adorable cat, Tina. I was immediately impressed by their story — a trio of housemates in their late 20’s who turned to beekeeping after getting a jar of local honey from a friend and being blown away by the flavour. Being industrious they decided that they would take the leap and get some bees of their own. This is where Alvéole comes in. The company describes itself as “helping people and organizations install and care for urban honeybee colonies” and helps new and veteran beekeepers outfit their homes or offices with safe and easy-to-maintain hives. They even provide the mentoring and on-going support to ensure the health and vitality of your bees, and come by for inspections and site visits a number of times during the season. I had the good fortune of meeting two of Alveole’s Toronto inspectors during my visit and their wealth of knowledge was invaluable. I was fortunate to be able to ask endless questions and get to tap into their experience. It was reassuring to know that Greg was only in his second year of operations and he benefits greatly from the expertise and materials Alveole was able to provide.

Inspector Tina

Noemie and Declan from Alvéole

The inspection was fairly straightforward. They were looking for 3 things: overall health of the hive, the health of the queen, the progress of honey-making and storing. I’d already watched a couple Youtube videos about natural honey production so I had a basic understanding of what would indicate the various stages in the process but I had no idea of the complexity with which the bees operated and how much of a well-oiled machine a hive is. I was blown away by the facts of how they communicated with each other, how decision-making and communication occurred, how politics of mating and queen-rearing factor–and perhaps most so, by the sheer number of bees in each hive. Tens of thousands. Pacified by the burning of burlap and pine leaves, the bees welcomed Greg and the inspectors (and me) without fuss, especially important while each individual frame within the hive was removed for visual inspection. They explained to me how each frame differed from the other where one may have only honey while others may have a combination of larvae, pupae, eggs (collectively, brood), honey and pollen, enclosed within a hexagonal structure itself made entirely of beeswax. The beauty of these incredible natural structures was mesmerizing and I was often left at a loss for words–something that become painfully clear with my umpteenth “THIS IS INCREDIBLE!”

A bee smoker is used to calm the bees and mask their pheromones while the bee box is disassembled for inspection. The metal grate on top is a queen excluder, used to keep the queen bee in the bottom of the hive while the rest of the bees are free to come and go

A plastic starter comb is used to help the bees form their beeswax structure on top to lay eggs and fill with honey

An individual bee box can have upto 10 frames, each with thousands of bees playing a particular role in the hive’s development

Honey can be seen through the comb. Areas appearing white have been capped off by the bees with beeswax once the honey in the cells has reached optimal humidity

Greg (right) and I taking a closer look

The queen bee can be seen along the top edge with the larger, darker and more pointed abdomen

The magic moment came with these sweet words: “So Waleed…do you want to try some honey?” I replied with an ecstatic YES and Greg showed me how to do it (secretly I think he just wanted a taste for himself…not that he can be blamed!) and stuck his thumb into the honeycomb and lifted it out, oozing with honey and speckled with clumps of beeswax. The second it went into his mouth I mirrored his movement and thrusted my own honey-drenched thumb into my mouth. For a split second my eyes rolled into the back of my head as I tasted this gorgeous sweetness that these bees had produced with nectar and pollen from my own neighbourhood. It was a religious experience. The intense saccharine sweetness layered with an equally prominent floral profile took over my palate and made me long for a second taste. But, I didn’t want to disturb the bees’ construction any more, so didn’t ask. Imagine my thrill when Greg followed replacing that frame into the hive with extracting a second one and inviting me to taste it as comparison. The difference was staggering. While the latter was a bouquet of flowers, the honey from the second frame was earthy and almost pungently cool, reminiscent of Eucalyptus and Peppermint and totally otherworldly. I was blown away. The same bees, in the same hive, had pollinated two separate kinds of flowers and produced totally distinct honeys. As far as I was concerned, this was a true privilege for me to experience. 

Perhaps the only disappointment in this whole experience came during my initial phone call with Greg when he informed me that he was already sold out of his 2015 batch of honey and the 2016 production wouldn’t be ready until September, i.e. I wasn’t going to be going home with any. I was aching to buy some for myself to indulge in to my liking and share with my loved ones, but sadly had to leave Rosedale Honey empty-handed. What I did leave with, though, was an immense respect for urban beekeepers (and beekeepers anywhere, for that matter) and perhaps most importantly, an overwhelming sense of humility towards the assiduous Apis. As I reassured Greg before leaving, I will undoubtedly be back in a couple weeks to get another taste of their paradisiacal produce.

Inspection complete. Until next time, bees