A Home for Me and My Bees

A Home for Me and My Bees

Sandra and her husband pose with their bees at their home.

Dave Bishop

I live in Vancouver, Canada – lauded as one of the world’s most sustainable cities, and yet also one of world’s most expensive housing markets. With “starter” homes priced at just under $1 million dollars, most first-time homebuyers frequently find themselves sorting through a seemingly endless supply of tiny, and only slightly more affordable, high-rise condominium units. Condos typically offer insufficient outdoor space for urban farming and even when they do, prohibitive rules set by condo administration can limit residents’ activities.

So how do Vancouver’s aspiring urban farmers take full advantage of the city’s permissive by-laws regulating backyard chickens and honeybees? We rent.

My husband and I have not let the out-of-reach housing market thwart our urban farming dreams. In 2012 we graduated bee school together. Over the next year we used the rooftop of our rental unit in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver to put our newfound knowledge and skills into action. A largely clandestine operation, we scarified our private sunset view of the North Shore Mountains to lovingly tend two honeybee hives, to whom we gave the lion’s share of our 200 square foot patio. Since we were the only unit with access to the rooftop, we did not consult with our off-site landlord prior to establishing our hives. It just seemed easier that way. Sure, summer BBQs were sometimes a tight squeeze with our insistence that bee flight paths be kept clear of humans, but we gained patience and understanding from our friends with promises of raw honey.

Our adventure in beekeeping was proceeding exceptionally well until I was hired as a professor at a university located in a Vancouver suburb. This was a bittersweet moment. While I was elated to have secured a position in a mostly impermeable academic job market, I was facing a nearly 4.5-hour daily commute. We would have to move – both ourselves and our bees.

With no agency willing to help us, we were forced to get our hands sticky and began contacting landlords directly ourselves.

We initially used a real estate agency to help us secure a small house with a private backyard for our bees on the east side of the city. I sent several query emails to agents, outlining the reasons for the move and a brief description of our beehives and typical honeybee behavior. I was shocked when the first reply to arrive contained no salutation, no closing, no statement of empathy, no recommendations or advice – just the words: “NO BEES!” My inbox filled slowly and steadily with variously phrased words of rejection over the next few days. Was this actually happening in my fair green city?

With no agency willing to help us, we were forced to get our hands sticky and began contacting landlords directly ourselves. We reasoned that would be easier to discuss beekeeping in person. We must have initially appeared to be ideal tenants. We explained to each prospective landlord the superficial details of our lives – two PhDs, one a professor and the other an engineer, no kids, no loud parties, no drugs, no band rehearsals until 3 a.m.

But the question would inevitably arise: do you have any pets? Pausing awkwardly, our reply was that we did not have a “pet” per se. Then we would launch quickly into an elevator pitch on honeybees, their role in urban ecosystems, the details of city bylaws, the physical dimensions of hives, the effectiveness of our smoker and that we had never needed to use our emergency EpiPen. In our descriptions we included the words “low-maintenance” and “unobtrusive” as often as possible. The typical response: silence, confusion, a few follow-up questions, bewildered stares, more silence, a polite request for time to think about it, followed by a brief rejection note sent by email usually a few hours later. This scenario repeated itself for weeks.

The bees on at their former home, a 200 square foot patio.Credits: Sandra Ignagni

People have many misconceptions about bees. They are often confused with summertime pests such as the yellow jacket wasp or hornet, which can be aggressive towards humans. Unlike predatory wasps, honeybees are more interested in finding abundant floral sources than in buzzing around your iced tea, watermelon slice or jumbo-sized hot dog. When honeybee foragers leave the hive in search of pollen and nectar they typically climb many feet upwards into the air and head off to sources up to 2 miles from the hive. Most people have suffered a painful wasp sting (or three) at some point in their life. Wasps can sting repeatedly when angered. Honeybees, by contrast, are domesticated, docile and will only sting when provoked forcefully.

It was becoming clear that we might have to live separately from our beloved bees. Fortunately, Vancouver has over 75 community gardens in its public parks, as well as a growing number of resourceful guerilla gardeners. Surely, we thought, some organization or individual would be willing to house our hives? Despite finding nearly a dozen locations suitable for our beehives, it was difficult to track down any one person actually responsible for any of these spaces. Management of community gardens can change frequently and websites are not always kept up-to-date. But after nearly two weeks of sustained effort, we were able to convince a garden to house our hives.

Being a ‘renter’ is not a barrier to pursuing urban farming dreams.

With a home for our bees secured, we embarked on what we hoped would be our last weekend of house hunting. As we walked through the rooms of a small bungalow with a great big backyard, we recounted to our prospective landlord our woeful and absurd tale of house hunting with bees. To our surprise, he told us that he had grown up next door to a beekeeper and he had never found any commercial honey quite as delicious as the honey from his childhood. We continued to casually explain the ease of backyard beekeeping and by the end of our viewing he had welcomed our 80,000 bees onto his property. After nearly six weeks of house hunting, we had found a beautiful home for us and our bees. The bees have been active for many months now, as we were blessed with a mild winter. Most of our neighbors are blissfully unaware that the bees are present, except for some curious children who have enjoyed watching our periodic hive inspections from a safe distance.

Our tale should give hope to aspiring urban beekeepers – or keepers of any livestock for that matter – that being a ‘renter’ is not a barrier to pursuing urban farming dreams. However, as we became painfully aware of, some considerations are helpful when house hunting.

The first is time. Give yourself several weeks to find a suitable home. Even in ‘green’ and farm-forward regions, many landlords are still unfamiliar with the health and environmental benefits of locally produced foods. Have an arsenal of useful facts on hand. Emailing information to a prospective landlord in advance of your meeting could help dispel myths about keeping livestock. Know your by-laws and any applicable insurance rules. It can put a landlord’s mind at ease to know they will not be fined or penalized in any way for choosing to rent to you. You may also want to consider inviting your prospective landlord to view your current arrangement, by sharing photos or scheduling an in-person visit. As a backup plan before your hunt, consider working with community gardens or a community group that links aspiring farmers with willing landowners. A few such groups have sprouted in our community recently.

Most importantly, generously share your harvest!

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