As farmers across the Canadian Prairies are just starting to prepare for their fall harvests, apiary expert and owner of ABC Bees Eliese Watson and her team have already been in full extraction mode, harvesting honey from her many hive setups that are peppered around Calgary. Photo by INGRID KUENZEL
Food fads are fast and furious these days. A few months ago, you could watch people walk down the street sipping cold-pressed juice while carrying a smoothie bowl. Fast forward to the peak of summer and you might see those same people, relatively speaking, enjoying a charcoal soft-serve ice cream in one hand and a poke bowl in the other.
What separates a trend from a fad is longevity and the ability to have some sort of lasting effect on our culture. Will that Instagrammable charcoal ice cream be pivotal to a city’s culinary evolution? Likely not. But urban beekeeping – one of the most positive food trends to enter the mainstream in recent years – certainly will.
As farmers across the Canadian Prairies are just starting to prepare for their fall harvests, apiary expert and owner of ABC Bees Eliese Watson and her team have already been in full extraction mode, harvesting honey from her many hive setups that are peppered around Calgary.
Although urban beekeeping is more commonplace these days, Ms. Watson and her team were passionate about the practice long before its popularity surge. Since officially starting her business in 2010, the apiarist has become widely regarded as a pioneer in the North American beekeeping industry for the strides she has made in terms of awareness and public education.
“When we first started out, we were really the only organization offering beekeeping educational programs [in Alberta],” Ms. Watson says. “For us, it started as a grassroots movement and has just continued to grow. What’s happened with it is that now there are enough beekeepers for it to support its own little industry and that’s great.”
One of her company’s main initiatives, Bees4Communities, serves as both an educational program and something akin to a CSA for local businesses, such as The Coup, Alberta Food Tours, Kent of Inglewood and the Fairmont Palliser.
Take Alberta Food Tours, for example: Ms. Watson’s oldest partnership is with the company, which owned by Karen Anderson, who has long celebrated the uniqueness of this province’s culinary community and the ingredients we’re surrounded by.
The company’s hives live happily in the backyard of Calgary restaurant Rouge. When honey is harvested, Alberta Food Tours receives 70 per cent of the yield, while 10 per cent goes to Rouge for hosting the hives and the other 20 is retained by ABC Bees and sold to help fund their Bees in the Classroom initiative.
Just because a company wants bees, though, doesn’t mean it’s a fit for partnership.
“Every year, I get a lot of requests from different organizations who are looking to get bees,” Ms. Watson says. “I turned everyone down this year and it’s not because I’m too busy; it’s because I only work with corporate partners with similar community, environmental and sustainable values as myself and my company. They have to meet the criteria.”
Since honey production for profit is not the main motivation of ABC Bees, it’s always Ms. Watson’s hope that the companies she chooses to partner with eventually learn enough from her staff that they will eventually take over the beekeeping themselves. That happened for Una Pizza + Wine this summer, after the restaurant spent three years in the program. This leaves room for another earnest, local company or restaurant to take part.
“The whole point of ABC Bees isn’t to help a company greenwash itself, it’s to help shift the culture of a business,” she explains passionately. “I mean, if we wanted, we could run hundreds of hives for different companies all over the city, but that’s not going to change a culture. It’s just going to be improving honey production and help people’s marketing strategies.”
Chatting with Ms. Watson, it’s easy to see that the future of beekeeping in Calgary, Alberta and beyond is a bright one, full of collaboration between local neighbourhoods, community gardens and beekeepers, as well as smaller municipalities following in larger cities’ footsteps to allow urban apiary setups. The driven beekeeping expert also plans to release a curriculum on honeybees and beekeeping that will be submitted to schools across the province.
“It’s becoming very much a part of our culinary scene [here in Alberta] and a larger part of our Canadian food culture, more so than ever before. It’s an exciting time!”