Published On: Mon, Jun 18th, 2018

To generate some buzz, GTA malls are breaking out in hives

The best way to avoid a bee sting is to stay calm, says Bob Kim, as half a dozen bees crawl across his knuckles, still working, impervious to being eased out of their hive for visitors who have come to see their small home on the roof of Hillcrest Mall.

One storey below Kim, the mall’s security manager, lies centre court, being renovated as part of a $ 90-million improvement launched in 2015, the year Target decamped and left a gaping vacancy at the north end of the property.

Bob Kim, the mall's director of security, removes a frame from the beehive on the roof of Hillcrest Mall
Bob Kim, the mall's director of security, removes a frame from the beehive on the roof of Hillcrest Mall  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

Three years later, the mall looks prosperous beneath the bandages of the renovation — Sephora was a coup for the mall in 2015, the retailer drawing a large millennial following. Sporting Life, H&M and Aritzia followed in 2016, then Starbucks and in December, a Miniso that drew lineups for weeks after opening.

In September, sales at the mall hit $ 530 per square foot, a 9 per cent increase over the previous year, at a time when malls are falling like dominoes in the U.S. and struggling to remain relevant in this country.

Keeping a mall alive in 2018 is no simple task, especially with so much competition just a short drive away, including the destination Vaughan Mills discount shopping centre, where a Nordstrom Rack recently opened, and which racked up $ 792 in sales per square foot as of June 2017, according to a Retail Council of Canada study.

Article Continued Below

As the number of traditional tenants dwindles, malls are also turning to entertainment to draw crowds: Square One announced this week it will open a 34,000-square-foot Food Distict inside the mall next year and Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group plans to open a family entertainment centre, including acrobatics, bungee jumping and an aerial parkour, inside a GTA mall in 2019.

Which brings us back to the bees, still crawling over Kim’s hands as he carefully pulls trays of the season’s first honey out of the box where the mall’s 20,000 bees live.

By the end of summer there will be 70,000 bees on the roof, each carrying out their strictly assigned tasks, right down to the undertaker bees who carry the dead and dying from the hive.

In 2017, the year Hillcrest had the hive installed, the bees produced 400 small jars of honey, which it gave away to shoppers.

The mall produced over 400 jars of honey last year that they gave to clients and donated to a women's shelter.
The mall produced over 400 jars of honey last year that they gave to clients and donated to a women's shelter.  (Steve Russell)

The bees have driven a lot of goodwill towards the mall, says Lisa Resnic, marketing director and specialty leasing, Oxford Properties Group Ltd., which owns the mall together with Montez Corp.

Gardeners like the bees. Local schools have become involved, creating lesson plans around the hives. The bees promote team building.

“It’s like when someone brings a dog to work and everyone takes an interest,” says Resnic.

Article Continued Below

Everyone, notes Resnick, is quieter, calmer, around the bees, who aren’t after all, that interested in stinging anyone, as stinging is fatal to the bees.

The hive on top of the Hillcrest mall is becoming big business for Alvéole, the Montreal-based company that supplies the hives, and provides education and support.

Alvéole was launched in 2013 by three students who fell in love with beekeeping while working summers at an apiary in Dauphin, Man. Now Alvéole has 600 hives in the greater Montreal area, 100 in Quebec City and 300 in Toronto where the company launched in 2016.

It provides beehives to individuals for about $ 1,500 for the first year, which includes five instructional visits from an Alvéole beekeeper, and to businesses for $ 3,000-$ 5,000 a year, which includes routine visits, workshops and a minimum of 100 corporately branded jars of honey per hive. Hives must be registered with Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

“There is just something about bees that is universally appealing,” says Blake Retter, Toronto director, Alvéole.

“As soon as we explain that bees are quite docile, then people just get excited about having honey that comes from their own roof and in being able to participate in this archaic craft that is in some ways really mysterious to the average person and really fun to do once they get a glimpse inside.”

“This is something that really connects people to nature in the city, connects them to how their food is produced.”

Bob Kim removes a frame from the roof-top hive to check on the colony.
Bob Kim removes a frame from the roof-top hive to check on the colony.  (Steve Russell)

Retter points to industrial-scale agriculture as the main culprit in the decline of bee populations. If a large area of land grows only corn or soy, for example, it offers very little nutrition to the bees.

“It’s a green desert to the bees when no other types of flowers are allowed to grow and typically where we farm, we tend to kill weeds or flowers that tend to interfere with the crop,” says Retter.

Oxford Properties considers the beehive on top of Hillcrest’s roof such a success that it is promoting the idea to other properties in its vast real estate portfolio.

Andrew McAllan, senior vice-president of real estate management for Oxford Properties Group Ltd., which is owned by Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System Worldwide (OMERS), said the company has beehives at about 20 properties from Vancouver to Quebec City, including 14 in the GTA.

Yorkdale just installed two hives, Square One will be bees next year, and office towers including the new EY Tower at 100 Adelaide St. W., and the RBC WaterPark Place on Queen’s Quay have hives.

McAllan said Oxford decided to support beehives because OMERS pensioners and Oxford customers care about the environment and protecting bees seems to have struck a chord.

It did take a couple of years for the company to take the plunge.

“We don’t want to have bees flying around within a shopping centre or an office building potentially stinging people, so we did our research, we did our due diligence on this,” said McAllan.

As for Hillcrest — the honeybees on the roof have earned the mall a lot of publicity, and every lick of interest counts as it battles online retailers for sales.

Hillcrest recently solved the Target vacancy problem. In the fall, a combined Marshalls and Home Sense will take up residence in part of the Target space, eyes on the growing number of condos and townhomes going up in the neighbourhood that will need furnishings.

Kim, 47, who has become something of an expert on bees, has come to enjoy the time he spends on the roof, checking on the hive. In winter, he puts his ear up against the wooden crate to make sure he can hear them buzzing, meaning they are alive and well.

Originally, Kim took over the task of caring for the hive because no one else would.

“As an alpha male, I have to pretend not to be afraid of them,” said Kim, who is actually not afraid of them (he has never been stung) and whose job otherwise includes emergency planning and preparedness, mall safety and security, and occasionally, dealing with shoplifters.

“It’s a really refreshing distraction,” says Kim.

And to the businesses below the hive, the Hudson’s Bay, the Michael Hill, the Aritzia, Sephora, the Nespresso, grouped around centre court, an opportunity for some buzz.

Hillcrest Mall's hive of bees.
Hillcrest Mall's hive of bees.  (Steve Russell)

The buzz on bees

The Hillcrest hives couldn’t come a better time for the province’s bee industry.

Bee populations are under pressure worldwide due to pests, pesticide use, climate change and habitat loss.

Honey production in Ontario dropped by nearly half in 2017, the result of poor weather and continued pesticide pressure, according to the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association (OBA). It was the lowest average per colony honey crop in 35 years of reporting.

And unusually cold weather in April is clouding the outlook for this summer. After heavy winter losses, surviving colonies were four to six weeks behind their normal spring build up in May, according to the OBA. Low yields are expected again in 2018.

Neonicotinoids, a class of nicotine-based pestiticides used as seed treatments on corn and soy, have been associated with bee deaths in Ontario since 2012, according to the OBA.

Recently, the European Union announced it will ban neonics, the world’s most widely used insecticides, from all fields, due to the serious danger they pose to bees, according to the OBA.

Ontario has achieved only a 25 per cent reduction and lags far behind its goal of an 80 per cent reduction in neonic pesticides as seed treatments in Ontario field crops, according to the organization.

The OBA doesn’t believe a hive on top of Hillcrest Mall will fix the bee problem, but approves nonetheless.

“I always think education is a big factor and the more people know about honeybees the better,” said Jim Coneybeare, OBA president.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

TORONTO STAR

Leave a comment

To generate some buzz, GTA malls are breaking out in hives