Question: To bee or not to bee, that is, ultimately, the question, but more importantly, we want to know what exactly it takes to be a beekeeper in the heart of the city.

Answer: “It’s a labour of love,” says Andrew Court, Executive Sous Chef at the Fairmont Royal York hotel downtown Toronto.  Chef Court, alongside fellow staff members of the prestigious hotel have been helping tend to six beehives installed next to the rooftop garden since 2008. The bees, which were introduced in order to produce homegrown honey for the hotel restaurants and valued guests, have since proved to be worth well over their weight in gold; golden honey that is. According to Chef Court, these busy bees produced over 450lbs of honey in 2010, 870lbs of honey in 2011 and 303lbs thus far in 2010, with a second harvest due in August.

Where herbs meet honey

When the bees from the original six hives were first introduced four years ago (two more were recently added), staff members were pleasantly surprised to see an explosion of life on the rooftop as herbs and plants pollinated by  bees started to thrive. The garden, which contains everything from rhubarb and wasabi arugula to chocolate mint leaves and lavender (all of which Chef Court was kind enough to let us sample), is key to many dishes served at EPIC as well as other restaurants within the hotel.

According to Chef Court, serving dishes containing items produced on the rooftop is great for morale among staff members, and is incentive enough for growing your own food: “It gives everyone a bit more pride when you know that you’re serving a dish made with chives that you’ve planted or garnished with a sauce made with honey you helped to harvest. When staff members lend a hand in the production process, they begin to understand how much effort it is. It’s a learning process for them as well.”

Working towards a different kind of sustainability

When asked whether or not honey harvested at the Royal York is available for purchase, Chef Court told us that despite the demand, this buzzing endeavour was about more than making money: “I’m not saying that it’s not about reducing costs,” says Court, “but it’s more about educating people to be aware of what they’re eating and where it’s coming from. It also makes us stand out – it’s unique.”

On top of providing the hotel with a unique selling point over the competition, the bees have also helped forward sustainable efforts by reducing the energy spent on transporting honey from other parts of the world. Sparking what Court refers to as a new “part of the corporate culture”, Fairmont hotels across the country are starting to harvest their own honey in an effort to be “local, sustainable and efficient with resources”.

“By harvesting our own honey, we are definitely shrinking our carbon footprint. If we didn’t produce our own honey, it would be coming in from Western Canada, the United States or as far away as China. We use 2000lbs of honey a year and approximately 50% of that is produced right here.” The hotel hopes to serve as an example to other establishments in cities across the world and regularly hosts visitors from overseas, interested in ways to harvest honey in urban areas.

Beekeeping in the city

While Court and his colleagues seem to have mastered the art of beekeeping, they have not been entirely without help, or challenges.

To make sure the bees are healthy and happy, the hotel works in partnership with the Toronto Beekeeper’s Co-operative, an organization who works alongside beekeepers to ensure that proper measures are being taken to protect the bees.

Beekeepers from the Co-op perform hive checks every 10-12 days, looking for diseases, making sure the Queen is alive and that the hive isn’t overcrowded: “Beekeepers at the Co-op are the experts when it comes to looking after the hives. They use the hives as a downtown campus for teaching courses and our staff members learn how to take care of the bees.” A win-win situation for everyone involved.

The other major challenge to keeping bees in the city? A lack of green space, says Court. “It would be great if the city encouraged more green space around the city so that our bees wouldn’t have to roam so far.” While the introduction of green patches atop condo buildings has definitely helped improve the situation, bees from the rooftop of the Royal York can fly up to 5km away looking for plants to pollinate, a dangerous voyage for such a small bee. Thankfully, according to Court, they always find their way back home.

What’s all the buzz about?

If you’re interested in learning more about producing your own food or honey in the city, here’s your chance. Tours of the rooftop garden and apiary take place every Saturday and Sunday between 2-4pm and are open to all members of the general public. “We’re trying to take a lot of people along with on the journey of being sustainable”, says Court, and after sampling a delicious spoonful of their prize-winning harvest, I would say it’s definitely worth the trip.

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