When you think of a healthy garden, what comes to mind? Lush foliage, rich soil, vibrant plants. But without bees, our gardens wouldn't amount to much at all.
Bees play a critical role in pollinating fruits, flowers and vegetables. More than 80 per cent of all flowering plants depend on some kind of creature, including bees, to reproduce. Even self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes rely on bumblebees (most of which are feral) to shake and loosen pollen, which increases fruit set. In fact, American entomologist and bee crusader Stephen Buchmann believes every third bite of food we eat and many of our medicines depend on a pollinator.
On a commercial scale in Canada, bees contribute an estimated one billion dollars annually in increased production of fruits and vegetables, according to Agriculture Canada. Without bees we wouldn't have apples, pears, blueberries or alfalfa.
And we wouldn't have honey.
If we live in the city, chances are, we quickly dismiss thoughts of keeping bees, but urban beekeeping is easier than you might think. (Check city bylaws first, though, as the keeping of hives is regulated.)
The time commitment involved in keeping hives is modest: 30 to 60 minutes per hive, once every 10 days from April 15 to October 15 in most parts of Canada. The cost isn't excessive either. You'll probably spend about $200 for the gear-a veil, gloves and smoker-and $250 for each hive, including bees. (If you build your own hive and buy used equipment, you can do it for less.)
As a general rule of thumb, it takes one hive of honeybees to pollinate 4,000 square metres of raspberries or 2,000 square metres of blueberries. John Gibeau, owner of Honey-bee Centre in Surrey, British Columbia, says the average city lot can support two hives, while 4,000 square metres can maintain five, as long as there are sufficient food sources within a three-kilometre radius.
The best time to begin is spring, when nectar and pollen sources are prolific. If you set up your hive before May, you'll have to feed the bees a sugar-water syrup until spring flowers start blooming.
It's best to place the hive in full sun, but if your area is especially hot in summer, the hive will benefit from a couple of hours of shade in the middle of the day, as bees waste a lot of energy keeping it cool. Generally, situate the hive in a spot that's sheltered from wind and gets morning sun, as this will encourage early morning flight and, thus, more honey. The hive's entrance should face south. Avoid low areas where cold, damp air settles in winter.
Give the bees a water source (add floating wood or plastic foam chips to prevent drowning) to keep them away from neighbours' swimming pools and ponds. Finally, try to influence the bees' flight path by planting a high bank of shrubs or a tall trellis (about 2.5 metres) one to three metres from the entrance to force the bees up when they leave the hive. This prevents them from flying head-first into people.