Casa Loma's hidden honey pot

Urban beekeeper says he’s making the world better

Fred Davis doesn’t mind a bee sting or two — or 12.

The Avenue Road and Eglinton Avenue West resident averages about a dozen each year, but it’s a minor irritation when your hobby is harvesting honey.

Davis culls about 500 lbs of the sweet stuff each year from hives he manages on the grounds of Casa Loma and the roof of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

“It’s amazing to watch nature in action,” he says. “Every time I open up a hive, I don’t know what I’m going to see.”

Though urban beekeeping isn’t new to Toronto — the Toronto Beekeeper’s Co-operative has been doing it here for years — it’s still not a common practice in a city trying to embrace the local food movement.

The tough thing about beekeeping is finding the right venue, says Davis. The small size and proximity to neighbours makes most backyards unsuitable for beekeeping, but Davis wasn’t going to let that stop him.

So in 2008, at the suggestion of his wife, Davis approached Bruce Scott, Casa Loma’s head gardener, to inquire about using some of the land to keep hives.

It was perfect timing, says Scott.

“Bees were making a bit more news and I often thought about having some hives because we do have space for it,” he said.

A year later, Davis, a management consultant, was looking out the window of his downtown office when he spotted the roof of the Four Seasons Centre. Remembering having read about the Paris Opera Company harvesting honey on their roof, Davis made a pitch, and the Canadian Opera Company bit. Now in the summer, you can find Davis tending to several hives atop the building at Queen Street and University Avenue.

“Every time I go down there, people are quite excited to see me, knowing what I’m doing on their roof.”

On a record warm November day, Davis is at the Casa Loma gardening shed, checking on his brood. Though it’s off-season for honey production, the sun’s rays are attracting the honeybees out of the five hives, hip-high wooden structures that Davis has built himself. Three other hives are sealed up and off in another corner of the property.

Clad in a white beekeeper’s suit and net hat, Davis reaches in to one hive and gently taps the perforated Ziploc bag holding sugar water as several honeybees buzz about.

The fluid is substitute food. As summer and fall wind down, Davis explains, there is not as much nectar to gather from surrounding gardens.

The bees are also fewer in number, as many have left the hive or died.

In high season, around July, there may be up to 60,000 bees per hive. Even gathering the honey and wax during that busy time, Davis says bee stings are a rare and minor hazard of the job.

“You’re breaking into their house, and that’s really the only time that honeybees can become aggressive, and even then, they’re not that aggressive they’re not like their cousins: the wasps and hornets.”

Davis says bees are fascinating because they each have a role in the hive, whether it is to scout out nectar, or guard its tenants, including the queen bee.

There’s a reason we use the expression ‘hive of activity’.

“They’re constantly fanning to keep the (hive) temperature at 30 degrees celsius,” says Davis, explaining how bees use temperature control to dehydrate the nectar and transform it to honey.

Beekeeping sounds simple and logical when Davis goes through the steps, but it’s an intricate science requiring an understanding of food, genetics and temperature and environment control. The virtues of beekeeping to the local food movement are huge, says Davis, as honeybees are prolific pollinators. This helps support diversity and strengthens local flora.

Davis himself says he has a lot to learn, but he wants to share the knowledge he’s gained so far. In the spring, Davis is going to start an introduction course on urban beekeeping at Casa Loma.

He’s also looking to offer his own services to teach, manage hives or provide leases to those who want to receive honey and wax. Currently, he provides honey to the Mad Bee coffeehouse, and butchershop Tony’s On The Block.

Though he loves the sweet taste of honey, Davis says it’s the local food movement that really drives his efforts.

“I think it’s my way of making the world a better place.”

About this article:

By: Karolyn Coorsh
Posted: Dec 15 2011 12:43 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto