60 Million Honeybees

September 1, 2011

Most of the beekeepers I’ve known rarely bother to wear pants under their coveralls. Graeme Evans’s broad shoulders are tucked into a smart charcoal suit, his polished look topped by an assertive tie. Evans is director of housekeeping at the Fairmont Waterfront; he became a beekeeper when, in 2008, he convinced the hotel to take on the care of 150,000 honeybees. He was inspired by, of all things, a hotel on the Mexican Riviera where guests release baby turtles into the ocean.

“Talk about making a difference!” he exclaims, on the roof terrace that’s home to the hotel’s six hives. He acknowledges that 90 percent of the baby turtles are eaten by seagulls their first day at sea and don’t actually live to do whatever ecologically helpful thing it is that turtles do. “Regardless, I have a passion for green initiatives, and I thought, ‘What a great experience.’ I brainstormed about what we could do and saw potential in educating our guests about the significance of bees to our civilization and culture.” Evans, 46, has clearly given this speech before. He mixes authoritative honey facts (“Honey is the only food that never expires”) with tongue-in-cheek one-liners (“Our first idea was to release grizzly bears into the downtown core”).

The city legalized urban hobby beekeeping in the name of biodiversity in 2005, about the time that entire hive populations began vanishing and the phrase “colony collapse disorder” sent a shudder through the beekeeping world. Bad for honey fans, the phenomenon has been even worse for farmers: honeybees pollinate a third of the world’s food supply, and without them crops fail—fast. Today, bee populations remain unstable (an estimated 30 percent drop each year for the last four years), and there’s still no consensus on what exactly is wrong. Environmental Microbiology Reports suggests that it’s a mutated fungal infection. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suspects pesticides. Other possible culprits include mites and pollution. Whatever the cause of colony collapse disorder, no solution has been found. The mystery is making a lot of people, Evans included, nervous.

“Our crops can only sustain our society because they’re pollinated. And that’s true of more than just fruit. Can you imagine a world without jeans?” He pauses, obliging me to answer.

“It would be…bad?”

He nods. “Cotton has to be pollinated, too. Chicken, cattle, pigs—their feed is pollinated.” Some parts of China, he points out, are now too toxic to support bees, so plants are hand-pollinated with a feather brush. Its food sources are in serious jeopardy. Having no food is even worse than having no jeans, clearly, and Evans refers throughout our conversation to the future as “scary,” “terrible,” and “terrifying.”

It took Evans, who joined the Fairmont in 2007 after a stint as executive housekeeper at the Delta Village Suites, five months to convince the hotel brass that hives on the third-floor terrace were a good idea. There were safety concerns: the garden is just steps from the outdoor pool. Honeybees’ bad reputation, though, is mostly unfounded—unlike wasps and hornets, bees lose their stingers when they attack, so they tend not to go looking for trouble—and proof that they could be good tenants lay just a few miles away, at the PNE. Twenty-five hives have been on the fairgrounds for the last 100 years, with no nasty incidents.

Evans enrolled in a two-day course at Surrey’s self-proclaimed “bee emporium,” Honeybee Centre. Now, between managing housekeepers and mini-bar budgets, he spends a few hours each week checking up to make sure the eggs and workers are healthy. It’s a low-time, low-cost (the Fairmont puts in about $5,500 a year for maintenance, extraction, and bottling) venture that intrigues guests, pollinates the gardens, and produces 275 kilograms of sweet, fruity wildflower honey annually—a harvest split between kitchen usage and gift shop sales, with enough left over for Rogers’ Chocolates to whip up the Fairmont’s signature truffle, the Bees Knees.

Across from the Fairmont, the green roof of the Vancouver Convention Centre is home to four hives; City Hall installed two of its own last spring. The Fairmont has also begun planting Canada’s first “bee park” on two acres adjacent to Crab Park. Overall, an estimated 1,000 hives thrive in the downtown core. Some 60 million bees fly up to six kilometres each day, feeding from East Van community gardens and West End flower patches. Evans suspects that many of his bees stray from their home—white wooden boxes set in 2,100 square feet of blackberries and thyme—out to Stanley Park. He says they also like the blackberry bushes by the train tracks.

Evans points to the species (fluffy bumblebees, sleek masons) that spend time on the Fairmont roof. “On sunny days, our honeybees hit a jet stream between these buildings and they’re gone,” he says, gesturing across Coal Harbour. No matter how far they fly, though, city bees aren’t going to amend the plight of their rural cousins. Commercial bee farms, like Honeybee Centre, manage thousands of colonies and transport them from farm to farm, chasing the nectar flow through the summer. From the first clover in March to pumpkin flowers in September, those bees quadruple the crops they visit. This pollination, though natural, takes a lot of manpower. A few urban hives will never have that impact. Still, with 11 other Fairmonts (including those in San Francisco and Kenya) adopting their own rooftop programs, Evans sees progress.

He looks down at Howe Street, at the tourists scurrying from docking cruise ships to Starbucks, unaware of the purposeful insects overhead. “Food sovereignty is the biggest issue of our time,” he says. “Without it, nations will collapse. I don’t know what people are going to do when that time comes.”

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