Perhaps nothing illustrates the value of knowing the background to your life and future than the environmental crises facing us today, including global warming and mass extinction. The bees of 32 Austin Avenue have a story to tell us about remembering the background to our lives.
Collective amnesia is as if we suddenly forgot everything important that ever happened to make us who we are. It is as if we as a society had a massive stroke and could only remember what happened today. Yesterday gone. If this happened to a bee colony, how could they find the flowers with the nectar and pollen needed for survival. The colony would collapse.
What is another name for “the background to your life”? Informally it is our communal memory. More formally it is history, both that written by academic historians in universities and by more everyday folks like me. I’m Joanne Doucette, one of Leslieville’s local historians, and I think that our collective past can help us imagine a better present and certainly a better future.
Let’s take a time machine back to the Green family 32 Austin Avenue in Leslieville in the summer of 1912. Neat homes and gardens line this quiet street and bees buzz from flower to flower long before the City of Toronto considered it necessary to develop a “Pollinator Protection Strategy”. https://www.toronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/9676-A1802734_pollinator-protection-strategy-booklet.pdf
Leslieville was founded by market gardeners and many of our streets are named after these families: Pape, Logan, Leslie, Greenwood, etc.
George Leslie and the other market gardeners of Leslieville were absolutely dependent on bees, but no doubt took them for granted.
Toronto was home to incredibly communities of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees (many now endangered or threatened), butterflies and moths. For more information about the bees of Toronto: https://www.toronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/8eb7-Biodiversity-BeesBook-Division-Planning-And-Development.pdf
Although pesticides like Paris green were in use on farms and market gardens, most farms were still essentially organic and agriculture more sustainable.
A thriving community of beekeepers, men, women and children, kept hives in their backyards and produced honey for home use and even sale. In 1912 Alfred William Green and his wife Effie Harnden lived at 32 Austin Avenue with their four children, Harold, Bernice, Myrtle and Alton, and thousands of honey bees.
In 1912 farming was still largely chemical free and based on small family farms. Bee populations were healthy and beekeeping both a popular urban hobby and a rural business. A beekeeper of 1912 would have had a hard time believing that a century later bees on Austin Avenue would experience more biodiversity than rural bees. Alfred Green, like all beekeepers, would have known that bee keeping is more than some boxes, frames, gloves, head gear and other equipment: it is bee caring. Bees require consideration and in return they give honey and pollinate our gardens and crops.
“The evidence is overwhelming that wild pollinators are declining. Their ranks are being thinned not just by habitat reduction and other familiar agents of impoverishment, but also by the disruption of the delicate “biofabric” of interactions that bind ecosystems together. Humanity, for its own sake, must attend to these pollinators and their countless dependent plant species.” -Edward O. Wilson
In 2019 farming is large scale agri-business, dependent on chemicals and artificial fertilizers, no longer sustainable but a major contributor to a global environmental crisis. Now Toronto, like many cities, is encouraging beekeeping to both stop falling bee populations and encourage local farmers and business.
Today’s city bees are healthier than their country cousins. The urban bees make more honey and have a higher winter survival rate. The city bees of 2019 have access to a wider range of flowers, a more varied diet. They have a stronger immune system and less exposure to toxic chemicals than rural bees.
Colony Collapse Disorder was unknown as were neonicotinoids, the insecticide believed to be behind declining bee populations.
However, now the term “colony collapse” is something even school children worry about.
“…most industrial farms practice extensive monoculture (miles of the same crop), where there is no alternative forage for any pollinator, native or non-native. Without a variety of food blooming at different times, any insect pollinator in the area will have a short, troubled life.” -Karen E. Bean, beekeeper
So for me the value of the background to this little illustrated story from Austin Avenue is not in some dusty type of history that leaves a dry mouth and bored mind but in its power to awaken our imaginations. We reach into our background to move forward to create alternative futures.
“I dreamt—marvelous error—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my past mistakes.
-Antonio Machado, “Last Night As I Was Sleeping”
Some bee-friendly plants still common in Leslieville today
A bee-friendly Leslieville area garden, 2019