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Pollen their weight: How the guys behind Royal Canadian Mead are doing their part to help out our struggling pollinators — and beautifying Toronto’s patios in the process

Benjamin Leszcz and Mike Mills left their jobs at communications companies to get into natural cider, which then lead them to another intriguing beverage: mead. “We were vaguely aware of mead, but hadn’t previously realized that it’s both the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, and the greenest,” Leszcz says. “We asked: Why isn’t anyone talking about the world’s most sustainable alcohol?”

To get the conversation going, they started Royal Canadian Mead (RCM). “Mead is super-sustainable,” Leszcz says, “because its base — honey — doesn’t require an agricultural footprint in the way that barley or grapes might, for beer and wine.” This explains how archeologists have discovered that mead predates those beverages. “It’s based on an insect byproduct, not an agricultural product,” Leszcz adds.

What’s more is that mead is the only alcoholic beverage that could be considered regenerative. “Every can of RCM contributes to the pollination of 185,000 wildflowers,” Leszcz says. “When you support the economy of bees, you support the economy of nature — an economy we all know is in need of major stimulus.”

The pair wanted to do even more for our buzzy, beleaguered little friends, so they paired with Pollinator Partnership Canada to set up the Patio Pollinator program, working with Jaime McCuaig of Gunnar and the Toronto Flower Market to install bee boxes on restaurant and bar patios and fill them with pollinator-friendly plants like coreopsis, milkweed, agastache, lantana, dill flower, bronze fennel, yarrow, sage and marigold, plus textural elements like grasses, trailing mint leaf and nasturtium.

“Flowers make the city feel alive,” Toronto Flower Market founder Natasa Kajganic says. “They change the cityscape — our sidewalks, our store fronts, our patios. Everything.”

They’re also crucial to our pollinator pals, according to Pollinator Partnership Canada director Vicki Wojcik. “With 85 per cent of all of the flowering plants out there and one-third of our food needing pollinators, they are one of the most vital ecosystem services out there,” she says. “Our lives would be very different if pollinators disappeared. Our landscapes would look different and our diets would be corn, wheat, and rice: no fruits.”

Over the course of the summer, the boxes have grown wild, beautifying the Fresh City on Bay, the Dock Ellis, Imperial Pub, The Ballroom, Sakai Bar, Grape Crush, Venice Beach Bar and Peter Pan Bistro.

The biggest challenge facing pollinators is loss of habitat, so, according to Leszcz, installing these gardens actually does move the dial. “A quick visit to any of them affirms that,” he says. “They are totally alive with pollinators of all kinds, from bees to butterflies — even some hummingbirds! My friend was enjoying a can of Garden Party on the patio at Venice Beach Bar on Dundas West when a monarch butterfly landed on his shoulder. It sat there for a good 15 minutes, kind of like a parrot on a pirate’s shoulder. After a quick visit back to the pollinator garden, the butterfly came right back to my friend, and perched on his knee. It was a small but memorable moment of delight.”

The program runs into October, but, even as it winds down, sustainability is key. “We are repurposing every aspect of the project, “Leszcz says, “bringing the bee boxes, soil and perennials out to our property in Prince Edward County, where we’re building a production facility and tasting room. There, the bee boxes will house beehives to support Royal Canadian Mead’s production. “It was really nice to participate in a project with longevity,” McCuaig says of the Patio Pollinator program. “It’s nice to be able to see the components of this project contributing to ecosystems far beyond this season.”

Royal Canadian Mead has been talking to potential partners in other cities as well. “We’ll be thrilled for this to happen,” Leszcz says. “The more pollinator gardens there are, the better off our urban ecosystems are, so we would encourage — nay, beg! — other companies to install pollinator gardens of their own. If another company that is connected to nature is reading this, we would say: Please, steal our idea! We all win if you do.”



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