Local bee project gets a lot of buzz

Brian Hamlin tends to the bees at UTSC, but officials plan to expand the project for community interaction

There’s a quiet hum growing in Scarborough east’s Highland Creek area as the honeybee population increases.

The surge in bee numbers is due to efforts of a student group at the University of Toronto Scarborough and local beekeeper Brian Hamlin. They want to bring attention to the plight of nature’s unsung hero, the honeybee, who collects nectar for their queens while pollinating crops and flowers.

As a part of the Honeybee Project, four individual beehives were placed on the roof of the Social Sciences building at the Military Trail and Ellesmere campus in May 2010. The bee yard is meant to raise awareness about the importance of honeybees and other pollinators.

It’s such a great project. It’s really getting a lot of buzz.

—Billi Jo Cox

After two successful seasons on UTSC’s roof, the university and Hamlin are planning on expanding the project into the Highland Creek Valley behind the Scarborough campus. The expansion would include three additional hives that will give the community an opportunity to take part in beekeeping.

Billi Jo Cox, UTSC’s project co-ordinator with the Office of Business and Administration, is excited about the additional apiary in the valley.

“It’s such a great project. It’s really getting a lot of buzz, if you will,” said Cox.

Though community engagement is an added benefit of the move, bee health is the key motivation.

“We also want to put in a pollinator garden to create awareness about flowers and plants that actually support the honey bee and other pollinators,” Cox said.

The rooftop hives were modelled after similar ones in the University of Toronto’s St. George campus. However, the buildings in the downtown campus have natural wind and weather barriers from the surrounding skyscrapers that the buildings in Scarborough do not have.

“Here there aren’t many tall buildings sheltering the hives, and last year we had to replace three of our four hives,” Cox said. “The queen bees had died over the winter because of the wind and other things that we didn’t know because we’re in the pilot phase.”

The current rooftop location has also proven to be a barrier to students and the community who don’t have individual access to the roof.

To make the bee yard more accessible, the relocated valley hives will be used as teaching aides for students and community members who want to learn about ecology and conservation.

“Brian is going to mentor members of the community that are interested and essentially teach people how to bee keep.” Cox said. “It will be a lot more accessible for everyone.”

In addition to extra hives, a pollinator garden will also be added to the valley’s various community gardens. Pollinator gardens feature a variety of flowers and plants ideal for honeybees to collect nectar and pollen used in their honey making.

Hamlin, who has been a beekeeper for 37 years, emphasized the importance of diverse plants and flora in natural honey production.

Hamlin said this doesn’t it only help increase the product’s quality, but honey made from the distinct plants and flowers of an area has a distinct taste.

Eating local honey has positive medicinal effects as well.

“Honey has traditionally been used by many ancient cultures as a healing medicine,” Hamlin said. “Recently, because of environmental issues, people have become aware of what’s going on with the planet, and there seems to have been a reawakening of some of these things that are quite ancient.”

Hamlin is equally excited about the opportunity to expand his bee operation and engage those interested in beekeeping.

“I enjoy what I’m doing, it’s a passion. My idea was to make connections with the students and the community, and by having them on the roof, it isn’t really happening,” he said. “If it was in an accessible area, people could actually observe them.”

Last year, Hamlin was able to collect 70 pounds of honey from the hives in Scarborough, which quickly sold out at local farmers’ markets.

As part of his sustainable business model, proceeds were reinvested into the many hives Hamlin manages around Toronto and in the surrounding areas.

Hamlin and UTSC hope to have the valley apiaries and garden ready by May.