Ashleigh Bliss, urban beekeeper at Alvéole, says Ryerson’s hives help educate individuals on the importance of bees. (Courtesy of Ryerson Urban Farm)

They aren’t traditional classrooms with whiteboards or old gum stuck under seats — but the hives on top of Ryerson are filled with more teachers than in the buildings below them.

Upwards of 150,000 honey bees can call Ryerson home in the summertime, according to Ashleigh Bliss of Alvéole, the urban beekeeping company that maintains Ryerson’s four hives.

Bliss says each one takes part in Alvéole’s mandate to advocate for honey bees and educate people on the species’ decline.

“We really use it as a bit of a teaching tool, a way to explain to people what’s going on with bee populations,” Bliss says about the practice of urban beekeeping.  

Alvéole beekeepers maintain one hive at the Student Campus Centre (SCC) and three at the Ryerson Urban Farm on top of the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre.

Environmental and conservation groups across the world, including Toronto-based organizations such as Ontario Nature, have raised concerns about the impact of diseases, climate change, farming practices and habitat loss on bees over the last decade.

Both the province and city of Toronto have acknowledged the threats by rolling out strategies to protect pollinators.

Bliss says monoculture farming and the use of pesticides in rural areas are two things that contribute to what’s known as colony collapse, a phenomenon where the majority of a hive’s adult bees suddenly disappear. Without worker bees, hives can’t sustain themselves and the remaining insects die off.

But bees can thrive in cities like Toronto due to the tighter restrictions on pesticides and crop diversity, she says.

Bliss says she has found colonies are healthier and more productive in cities because they have a more diverse forage available to them.

“They like a lot of diversity in their diet,” Bliss says, adding that bees forage within a five kilometre radius of their hive.

That means the bees at Ryerson travel as far as the Toronto Islands for flowers and crops — and as close as Ryerson’s Urban Farm.

Arlene Throness, manager of Ryerson’s Urban Farm, says ever since they started planting, her team knew they wanted to bring bees to the rooftop garden. But they didn’t have any in-house expertise — so they hired Alvéole.

“It increases our yield because they pollinate our fruit and crops like cucumbers, squash, melons [and] tomatoes,” Throness says.

This is the farm’s third growing with the bees and the second season in the SCC’s courtyard.

“We try to plant lots of wildflowers that feed our honey bees and lots of pollinators in our ecosystem,” Throness says.

Bees, along with butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, hummingbirds and certain beetles and bats, play a critical pollinator role in growing crops.

Bliss says activity in the Ryerson hives started two weeks ago, with some warmth replacing the blustery winter weather. They huddle inside their hives, which are wrapped during the winter for warmth, until spring.

There are currently about 5,000 bees in each hive at the university, but she says that number can reach 40,000 during the height of summer.

The urban beekeeper says each hive is good for more than education purposes and pollination — they produce about 15 kilograms of honey each.

The bees, Bliss adds, make honey with nectar from 50 to 60 different wildflowers.

Since the flavours depend on the flowers and fruits they forage in their neighbourhood, each hive’s honey tastes different.

Ryerson’s honey, as Bliss describes it, is light in colour, sweet with floral notes and “a little bit citrusy.”

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