Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bees in the hood

When Kathryn Jezer-Morton put up a beehive in a vacant lot (aka le Champs des Possibles) she wasn't sure what would happen.

She surrounded the hive with a small chicken wire fence and posted a sign introducing the hive's inhabitants as "peaceful, hardworking bees" with a caveat: "If you disturb them, they will sting you." For more information she provided an email address: mileendbeehive at

"I wanted an address without my name in it, in case of fines from the city," she laughs.

"My husband and I weren't sure how it would go. We thought, 'it's not on our property; it's a liability; people will get stung; vandalism will occur; it'll be removed by the city. But let's do it!' We put the little fence around it to deter dogs and night-time tagger kids."

After they set it up, Jezer-Morton worried about the hive getting damaged and about passersby getting stung. That night she couldn't sleep.

"Then I got a bunch of email – all from people who wanted to help!" she recounts.

"There was a bit of vandalism, people stole a few fence stakes. But I realized a hive is pretty much a self-protecting thing."

Walking down St. Viateur, Jezer-Morton manages to look light on her feet, even glamourous, at 40 weeks pregnant. She's on maternity leave from her job as an editor at an online men's magazine that she describes as "laddish" – nothing to do with nature.

It's a little hard to believe she's a beekeeper. Except she must be, because she says things like: "Working with bees is so calming. You have to be calm so they'll be calm."

Her grandfather kept bees in Maine, and she grew interested in keeping her own when colony collapse disorder first appeared in the news. She was living and volunteering in New Orleans where there was a post-Katrina renaissance in urban agriculture.

After moving back to her native Montreal and taking a beekeeping course in Mirabel, it made sense to find a spot for her hive near her apartment.

Two days past her due date, Jezer-Morton traipses through the hot field. She puts on her long sleeved gear and her bee veil and, in a move that seems like it might be one quick way of triggering labour, she opens up the hive.

She says she hasn't been stung once all summer, even though bees repeatedly got tangled in her long hair as she walked away from the hive and took off her bee veil.

In the shade of a factory building, in front of a wall covered in graffiti, her hive is filling up with honey. The bees have been working.

"I'm so excited this has worked out," she says. "Bees in a vacant lot. It's utopian!"

A few blocks away, not far from the railroad tracks, three more urban beehives are thrumming with activity.

Francis Miquet has been keeping bees in Mile End for five years, and first started beekeeping 15 years ago when he apprenticed with a beekeeper in Papineauville.

Since I happen to live with this particular beekeeper, I'm used to stepping around his box of bee stuff, the smoker, the scraper, the bee suit, and the extra empty hives. I admit, he's the one responsible for any preconceived notions I had about Mile End beekeepers (big hands with fingernails banged up and dirty; an old station wagon for hauling hives; a kitchen sticky in the fall from honey extraction).

I personally didn't used to believe it was a great idea to have a beehive in a neighbourhood packed with row houses and pavement and kids and only tiny gardens.

But I found out that cities are full of advantages for bees. They have a wider variety of trees and flowers than rural areas which are often dominated by one kind of crop and treated with pesticides. Bees can do well in a city as crowded and polluted as Paris and even manage to produce untainted honey.

I was also persuaded that honey bees are not aggressive and, unless you open up their hive, rarely sting. Unlike the wasps they're often confused with, bees aren't interested in people's food, or people.

People though, are definitely interested in bees. Due to popular demand, Projet Montreal is planning a pilot project for several Plateau beehives. Like keeping chickens, it's a form of urban farming that's capturing the imagination of city-dwellers all over the place.

At the edge of the vacant lot, Jezer-Morton's hive attracts spectators.

"We'd noticed honey bees in our garden and wondered where they came from," says Julia from nearby St. Dominique Street as she watches the action.

If you look, you may see them, too: bees on the job, they've been criss-crossing gardens of the neighbourhood, visiting the pear trees on Esplanade, the ferny plumes of cosmos on Waverly, and the Queen Anne's lace and clover along the railroad tracks.

see my other story on city bees, here.


Beth said...

Wonderful post and wonderful blog! I'm going to link to the bee story immediately and have just subscribed to your feed.

Michael Black said...

Note that Kathryn Jezer-Morton was born in Montreal. I met her very briefly in the late eighties. Her father was really important, though virtually nobody would know. When he died five years ago, one last interview had him saying something about the need to "Question Assumptions", something I'd figured out long ago, a take off on all those buttons that say "Question Authority".


Coolopolis Montreal said...

Great post! Would be curious though to know how she like got the bee hive in the first place, they sell 'em at Wal Mart or sumpin?

Sarah Gilbert said...

Right! You can get a starter hive (a nucleus) from beekeeping supply places which is what she did.

Merrianne Couture said...

Another apiary I know is so happy to hear about all of this urban bee activity in Montreal. I'd never seen Francis kitted out in the gear. Very nice.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Great article and great news to hear the good work these people are doing. More bees, more natural diversity and growth alongside this very dense human community.

Have any of you read Royal Jelly by Roald Dahl? I recommend it. :)

the_smithers said...

This is so inspiring. My grandfather used to keep bees at the bottom of his garden and some of my earliest memories are of seeing him in his beekeeping suit with a jar of home made honey.

It actually makes me want to do this kind of thing myself, where can we find out more information!

Ramil said...

What a nice blog you shared to us. Its interesting to read and I pick some tips on what to do with bees.

Jessica said...

Wow! Very cool to read this slice of life in Mile End. Wondering about Kathryn now – how to juggle beekeeping and new baby? Definitely not a question that comes up in most playgroups!

Roger Latour said...

At last I have an explanation for spotting honeybees near the tracks for a few years now! Before Kathryn came along the only domestic bees I knew of were at the Botanical Garden... a bit far! Thanks for the info!

Jessica said...

Sarah, saw your Gazette article on beekeeping in today's paper! Congrats!

Theoretical Shopaholic said...

I was just wondering if the city had any urban apiaries. Anywhere people can go to learn how to set one up, or to work on one (sort of like a community garden)?

Sarah Gilbert said...

The beehives that Projet Montreal is sponsoring in summer 2011 (mentioned in Gazette article posted above) are slated to have an educational component, tours, etc. And Kathryn Jezer-Morton did a talk about her hive at Champs des Possibles in August. Maybe there'll be one next year, too.

Sarah Howe said...

Hello Sarah,
I too live in Mile End and happened upon your blog. I was intrigued by your blog post on Bee Keeping. I had no idea there were so many around. I am doing some research on Bee Keeping. If it is still the case that you live with Francis Miquet Beekeeper.I would very much like to get in touch and pick his brains ??

Please do let me know if you think that might be possible.

Best wishes,


Unknown said...

I would like to do some beekeeping and would like some info.
Elsie Lepp

Unknown said...

Nice to hear about urban bees. I would like to have some info on urban beekeeping. I have a medium sized yard and am wondering what kinds of flowers or veggies to plant to attract more bees