||October 2011 issue
How to raise honeybees in Montréal’s Mile End
By Kathryn Jezer-Morton
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
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
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.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton is a writer based in Montréal.