By Abby Langer, Foodable Contributor
Urban beekeeping is part of the latest and most innovative local food initiatives. It has been surfacing in many of the world’s major cities, such as New York (where a ban on urban beekeeping was lifted in 2010,) London, Chicago, San Francisco, and Paris. Bees seem to like an urban environment, perhaps because there are less pesticides and a greater diversity of flowers and plants available.
All About That Honey
Honey has long been touted as not only a sweetener, but also for its medicinal properties. It has well-known antibacterial properties and can be used to soothe sore throats. When cooking with honey, it can be used to round out a too-astringent sauce, glaze fruit or roasted vegetables, as a powder to flavor, or as an additive crunch to yogurt. Honey can be infused with herbs, flowers, or spices such as vanilla. It can also be used to make mead, also known as ‘honey wine’ or ‘honey beer,’ in which honey’s naturally occurring yeast is the ferment.
Nutrition-wise, honey is mostly fructose and glucose and is rich in calories. Also, it has small amounts of antioxidants, the composition of which depends on where the bees collected their nectar. Bees work hard too. They travel the equivalent of three times around the world– for the equivalent of just one jar of honey. It takes one million plants to produce a teaspoon of honey.
The Tale of the Toronto Beekeeper
Toronto beekeeper, Fred Davis knows a lot about bees and he also–makes some great honey. Toronto chefs source his honey because it’s unpasteurized, free of pesticides, and local. His 22 hives are located in various areas of the city. These include the roof of the Canadian Opera Company’s Four Seasons Centre and Casa Loma, an urban castle in Toronto, and he culls about 500lb of honey a year from them.
Fred became interested in beekeeping when he was young. It wasn’t until 2009, when he began his business, FredD's Bees. Since then, he has been supplying select Toronto restaurants and caterers with his honey to use in their cheese plates, soups, salads, and desserts.
Honey has many varieties, and according to Fred, it tastes very different depending on when it’s harvested. Early summer honey is light in flavor and color– and leaves a bit of a ‘twang’ and heathery flavor. Fred’s early summer honey has a peppermint flavor. Honey gathered later in August, is typically darker and has a bolder flavor without the twang finish. Flavors come from the nectar of the plants in blossom at that time of the year. It’s more of a ‘peaty’ flavor.
Honey Benefits the Environment
Bees are now looked upon as a hot commodity because their populations are declining all over North America, due to Colony Collapse Disorder. Tending bees in the city means finding hive locations that are sunny and sheltered from people and pets. Fred examines prospective hive sites between January and March, so he can get an idea of what the bees will be facing during the roughest times of the year. He also considers wind velocity, buildings that allow or block sunlight, and safety for the people in the area.
Urban beekeeping isn’t only about producing great honey, it’s also part of an environmental movement. One hive introduces 50,000-60,000 pollinators into the urban area. This not only helps sustain the bee population, but also strengthens and diversifies local flora. This in turn, increases the locals’ connection with nature. Urban hives appear to outdo rural hives, in terms of overwintering and honey yield..
According to a 2013 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada report, the value of honeybees to the pollination of crops is estimated at $1.3-$1.7 billion dollars annually. One of every three bites of food we take– exists because of bees.
Honey is readily available in the supermarket, but what makes Fred’s honey different is that his is not pasteurized or filtered. Filtering eliminates pollen and pasteurization heats the honey to the point where it becomes ‘basically a sweet liquid with no benefits to us at all.’ Fred spins his honey out of the frames in a centrifuge and then passes through a restaurant-grade sieve into a food grade container. Nothing else is added.
Hive Share Program
Fred runs a hive share program, where people can purchase a share of honey from a quarter, half, or full hive. Members of Fred’s Hive Share program not only receive their share of honey, they also get to work at the hives alongside Fred. Members get to assist Fred with ‘his girls’, which is what he calls his bees. As far as the obvious job hazard, Fred gets stung about a dozen times a year, but it’s worth it for the amazing honey he produces.
These urban hives bring a little bit of the country to the city. With these hives nesting all over the world’s cities– they are truly a hidden source of city sweetness.