Urban Hives Make Better Honey

There is something incongruous about urban bees. The idea of tending to a community of non-human life—a bee city—amid the skyscrapers, the traffic, the bustle, and the pollution of the modern metropolis is truly amazing. I think, at least in part, it explains the rapid and growing interest in keeping bees today.

But urban beehives aren’t new. My grandmother, a war-bride who spent the better part of World War II eating government rations and desperately craving sweets in London, remembers receiving a jar of city honey. It came from a man who kept some hives on the roof of a hotel near Kew Gardens, and for her, it was a miracle: a whole pot of sweet stuff produced right there in the city, at a time when sugar imports were restricted by U-boat torpedoes. I can’t count the number of times she told me the story, closing her eyes while she described how it tasted of limes because the man’s bees pollinated the Kew Gardens citrus trees, she said.

Because like wine, honey reflects a taste of place … By trying honey made where I call home, I learned just how profoundly geography shapes the flavor of what the bees produce.

My grandmother’s love for urban honey was in the back of my mind when I had my first taste of my city’s honey this month. I live in Toronto, where there are few hives, particularly in comparison to New York or London, where, according to the Collin’s Beekeeper’s Bible, for every human there are 30 bees. Our meager honey crop here in Toronto is in part due to city bylaws that require hives to be kept 30 meters from property lines, but we also haven’t opened our mind to the idea of honey in the city. We don’t realize that our city has terroir.

Because like wine, honey reflects a taste of place. And the taste of the place where I live was a real surprise. By trying honey made where I call home, I learned just how profoundly geography shapes the flavor of what the bees produce.

It was a cold, wet morning when I went out with urban beekeeping guru Brian Hamlin to visit the hives he keeps on the Toronto Islands, only a short ferry ride from downtown. Brian warned me that “the girls,” as he calls them, might be cranky because rain tends to keep them cooped up in the hive when they’d rather be out pollinating. But when we arrived, the bees were quite docile, and I was able to come close to the hives and peer in to see where they stored the honey, deep in the comb.

I had tried their honey before the visit and it was spectacular. My first impression was of spices, a bold, peppery flavor reminiscent of the nasturtium flower. Brian explained that the bees on the island visit a wide range of flowers. The hives are in a wooded area where they can pollinate the tree flowers in the spring and then wild flowers like golden rod later in the season. A short flight away are botanical gardens that add another layer to the flavors.

Brian keeps three other hives in different parts of the city: one deep in the grit of downtown, another in the port lands at the edge of Lake Ontario, and another in the suburb of Scarborough, where ravines and strip malls exist side by side. Each hive, Brian explained, has its own taste. The downtown honey is thick and muddy-looking with an almost granular texture (he doesn’t know why), whereas the honey harvested from the port lands has a soft floral flavour from the wildflowers that grow on the banks of the water.

Brian explained that the main difference between honey produced in the city and honey from country bees is that the rural ones typically pollinate the vast monocultures of modern industrial agriculture and are thus exposed to only one flavor note—picture all those jars of clover honey on the supermarket shelf. Whereas city bees have a smorgasbord of flowers to choose from. Plus city bees might in fact be exposed to fewer chemicals, he argued.

“A lot of people tend to think of the city as being evil and polluted,” Brian said. “But in the country, there is a lot of chemical farming going on. There are a lot of bees that are kept in the country on a larger scale that are exposed to pesticides and chemicals in a much greater way.”

And so urban honey becomes extra special. Taste of place reflects the microclimate and the micro-geography. What an intimate way to experience the neighborhood where you live.