Ottawa

Gatineau non-profit plans 'super bee' research project

Apicentris Collective wants a beekeeper network that can breed a more resilient bee.

Goal would be to breed a bee that's more resilient to Canadian pests and weather

Most honey bees used in urban beekeeping actually come from Europe, which are not particularly well adapted to the Canadian climate. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A Gatineau, Que., non-profit hopes to leverage an explosion in urban beekeeping to boost research in the development of a more resilient "super bee."

It won't be able to jump tall buildings in a single bound, but it may be able to survive Canadian pests and winters.

"The ultimate goal would be to create a local bee that is able to fend off parasites and pathogens," said Pablo Berlanga, president of the Apicentris Collective.

The collective has been managing the City of Gatineau's urban beekeeping program and has seen interest skyrocket in the three years it's been in place.

The first year of the pilot project had 15 beekeepers.

That number increased to 50 in 2018 and interest has jumped again this year, Berlanga said.

Pablo Berlanga is president of the Apicentris Collective, which has been working with the City of Gatineau to create and manage a network of urban beekeepers. (Radio-Canada)

Now the group is set to leverage that interest into a major research endeavour.

"What we're trying to do is bring all the small urban beekeepers together," Berlanga said.

"So instead of working alone in their backyard with one or two hives, we would create that network that will allow them to exchange bees and use the large population of bees to create a massive urban-wide research project."

Berlanga is now working with universities to make sure the project meets the rigour necessary for scientific review.

Mixing up the gene pool

It's happening as concern grows over the population decline in bees — important pollinators that are needed to grow crops like apples, tomatoes and blueberries, along with trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

Most honey bees used in urban beekeeping actually come from Europe, which are not particularly well adapted to the Canadian climate — a contributing factor to the annual bee death rate of roughly 25 per cent.

Berlanga said he wants to carry out breeding experiments among urban beekeepers that commercial businesses shy away from because the economic stakes are too high.

"We are trying to bring in a number of varieties of bees and mix up the gene pool," Berlanga said.

Interest in hosting hives explodes

In Ottawa, interest in beekeeping is also growing, despite provincial restrictions that dictate hives must be 30 metres away from an adjoining property line, making backyard beekeeping illegal for most urban Ontarians.

Still, there's booming interest by institutions and companies in "hosting" a hive through companies that offer the equipment, education and even harvest the honey at the end of the season.

Schools, hotels, even shopping malls and corporations are taking part, according to Dominic Lizée-Prynne with Montreal-based Alvéole. 

She said the company was responsible for 30 hives last year and are now delivering hives to more than 70 locations in Ottawa.

"A lot of people don't have access to nature; it used to be really common but with everyone living more in an urban setting it's not as often they have access to it," she said.

Lizée-Prynne said the education piece seems to be the most important for clients, and each year, Alveoles is harvesting not just honey, but a new crop of citizens wanting to advocate for bees.

"We're going to get [to the point] where we're able to change legislation and make sure we have a positive environment for ourselves and the bees."

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