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magazine / oct11

October 2011 issue


IN HABITAT

Guerrilla beekeeping
How to raise honeybees in Montréal’s Mile End
By

If you’re in Montréal’s Mile End neighbourhood, historically home to working-class families but lately one of Canada’s hipster epicentres, take rue Saint-Viateur east until it deadends amid a group of ungracefully aging industrial buildings. Follow a potholed pathway between two of them, and you’ll find yourself in a meadow, a startling bit of green left feral all year round. That’s where we keep our bees.

We set them up there a year ago, our first season of beekeeping. I had been reading about the collapse of honeybee populations around the world, and beekeeping seemed like a romantic antidote to my desk-bound life and a way to harvest fresh honey at the same time. At first, the roof on one of the buildings was a promising site, but I was six months pregnant — not the ideal time to haul boxes of bees up and down ladders. So, with some trepidation, my husband Gray and I set up our hive in the meadow, which locals call Le Champ des Possibles.

About one hectare, Le Champ is home to a mature stand of cottonwood trees and a dazzling succession of wildflowers. It’s also a popular spot for illicit campfires and sleepovers by itinerant street kids. Beneath the brush at Le Champ’s perimeter, the ground is plastered with trash: lone leather shoes, junk-food wrappers, empty packs of Export ĎA’s.

But Le Champ is a refuge for the neighbourhood too. Kids ride their bicycles across the network of worn footpaths. A saxophone player practises by the campfire ashes. Commuters cross the field by the dozen, taking a shortcut to the Métro station. And on a rise by the train tracks, our bees are hard at work.

We bought our bees from a hobbyist in the Eastern Townships whom we found on the Craigslist website. In early May, we drove the 45 minutes to his house, where he helped us load a starter hive of bees into the back of our station wagon. A few bees managed to crawl out of the box. “Roll down your windows,” he advised us. “The wind will push them to the back of the car.” Not, as it turns out, when you’re stuck in downtown Montréal traffic.

We started with a single wooden box, called a super, on a wooden pallet. Over the summer, it grew to a stack of three supers. Concerned that curious dogs or revellers would disturb the hive, we erected a makeshift enclosure out of chicken wire and wooden stakes. I laminated a friendly note introducing the bees to passersby and zip-tied it to the fence. And I created an anonymous e-mail account to field complaints that we worried would be inevitable.

The first night our bees spent in the field, I lay awake worrying about them. I wouldn’t leave my cat in a vacant urban field at night; why was leaving the bees there any different?

Within the first week, the wooden stakes of our enclosure were stolen for firewood. A handful of cigarette butts graced the front of the hive; I imagined people enjoying a contemplative smoke while watching the bees land at the entryway, haunches covered in pollen.

But instead of complaints, the e-mail account filled with interview requests and offers to help maintain the hive. Within a couple of months, our bees had been photographed, blogged about, covered in the local paper and filmed. We joked that we were “meta-beekeepers” rather than actual beekeepers, having spent nearly as much time talking about our bees as caring for them.

Many people who we will never meet love our bees. On our weekly check-ins at the hive, we enter the meadow from the train-tracks side and often see from a distance someone paused in front of the hive, watching.

I love our bees, because while much of my time is taken up with getting by in an urban world, they’re a reminder of the relentlessness of the natural world. With or without a beekeeper, they build their cities, rear their leaders and defend themselves. They have been doing so since before my city was dreamed of, and strangely, I take comfort in thinking they’ll be doing so long after I’m gone.

is a writer based in Montréal.

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