Skip to main content

Bee City initiative started by high school student creating more pollinator-friendly spaces in Stratford

By Megan Stacey,
Beacon Herald,
May 19 2017

The Bruce Bees are ready to roll.

Stuart Arkett, a farmer and beekeeper, has cultivated hives behind the Bruce Hotel in Stratford for more than two years.

It’s the kind of partnership that may become all the more common in Stratford now that city council has approved the Bee City initiative.

“This was an initial experiment to see how they do, and they do just fine,” said Arkett as he tended to his bees on Wednesday. There are five hives in total, plus an incubator that will grow into a full hive by the end of the summer.

Stratford is one of only a handful of communities in the country that have embraced the Bee City designation.

Plans for education session and other pollinator-friendly activities are already in the works, and grade 10 student Ethan Elliott is leading the charge.

“It’s about bringing us together and talking about what we can do for pollinators in our area,” said Elliott, also a member of the Ontario Nature Youth Council.

Sarah Hedges, conservation and education coordinator with Ontario Nature Council, said credit for bringing the idea to the city goes to Elliott.

“Young people have such a unique voice, and it can be rare that they feel empowered to stand up and make a change in the community,” she said. “Ethan sets a really great example for others, and a great example for fellow youth, who may not feel like they can make a big difference.”

Behind the Bruce, the bees are buzzing away. The hives must be kept 30 metres from the property lines, as per provincial regulations, but the hotel is more than happy to have the tiny pollinators on site.

Urban beekeeping isn’t without its challenges, of course – like the day a swarm of bees vacated the hives and took up residence around a hosta near a hotel room. Or when the bees started drinking out a swimming pool during a particularly hot and dry summer. But for the most part, everyone can co-exist peacefully.

“It’s great,” said sales and marketing director Chris Parson. “It goes with our stance on the environment and being sustainable and the vision of our chef.”

They’re even hoping to set up a “Bee Cam” operation to allow live-streaming of the busy bees.

Honey from Arkett’s hives is used in all kind of baking, as well as the Bruce’s specialty honey butter.

Part of their backyard acreage is trimmed and landscaped, but the rest is what Arkett described as “rough ground,” and it’s natural landscape that helps keep the bees alive and thriving.

Manicured grass and gardens don’t offer much usable protein for the bees. Their honey is also very light and even in taste.

That’s perfect for use in baking, and a couple of local bakeries and cafes buy the honey for just that purpose.

But now that the space behind the hotel is a little more natural – it was recently seeded for wildflowers, too – there’s a greater depth to the bees’ product. It’s still got nothing on the honey from his countryside hives, Arkett said.

“They get their (nectar) sources from anything and everything, all summer long, a whole host of weeds. That honey is darker, it’s a lot more complex,” he said.

Of course, country hives – and native bees, which are much harder to track – face other challenges in rural areas. Pesticides, like the controversial neonicotinoid family, are one of the biggest.

Arkett raises bees on his cash crop operation in St. Pauls, so he wears both beekeeping and farming hats. Though he hasn’t sustained the huge hive losses that plagued other beekeepers in Ontario, he understands the potentially harmful effects of chemicals like neonics.

“I’ve never seen a bee kill at my farm. But it’s the long-term, sublethal effect of this stuff – because it’s everywhere – that is an ongoing concern for us,” Arkett said.

He stopped using neonics on his soybeans several years ago and tested treated versus untreated corn seeds last year.

But it’s the impact on native bees that’s the biggest concern for Elliott.

“That’s something that a lot of people miss. The native bees are much more valuable to us than managed bees. They’re exponentially more effective in pollinating crops,” he said.

The scale of southwestern Ontario’s food production would be hard to sustain with native bees alone, Arkett said. And though native species are wonderful for the bees, “you can’t grow crops in weeds,” he said.

But what both sides can agree on is that there can never be too many pollinator-friendly spaces.

Local residents are invited to take part in the planting of a pollinator garden, part of the Ted Blowes Memorial Garden, in Upper Queens Park on the morning of June 3.

There are a number of other city spots that are already great for local bees.

“It’s got lots of green space, it’s got the river – all those willows along the river are a tremendous source for early pollen,” Arkett said.

The copious amount of dandelions that fill the boulevards are another pollinator paradise.

As far as cities go, Stratford is a pretty good place to bee.