The City Bee

What urban beekeepers want you to know about life through the eyes of a metropolis-loving pollinator.

There are few things a city dweller can do to positively impact the environment around you — your one drop against the great tide of climate crisis. You could ride your bike on your commute, recycle and compost everything you discard, plant a small rooftop garden, and reuse your water. Even with most of those activities ingrained in my daily routine, a few years ago I chose to add another one: I became a beekeeper through a community-led program in San Francisco.

A Best Bees beekeeper inspects a hive at the Taj Hotel rooftop in Boston. Beekeeping has been on the rise in recent years due to a growing understanding that bees are essential players in our food systems. Photo by Mel Taing.

What I wanted was to directly see and be part of a mutually beneficial process in the natural world, and I wanted to do that within a few miles of my home. Initially, I was driven by a visceral, selfish impulse — I just wanted to notice the bees gathering pollen and nectar, pollinating flower, and creating honey. I wanted to witness their turf wars, their seasons, the goings on in the queen’s harem as she moved through the hive laying her eggs. I wanted to catch a glimpse of all the Earth’s possibilities within a microcosm inside a box.

The beekeeping program is a nonprofit, scrappy project in the back of a school for at-risk youth, abutting a San Francisco city park and community garden on the south edge of the city. I started as an apprentice more than five years ago, with a two-year commitment to start. The lead organizer, Karen Peteros, has almost 20 years of beekeeping experience, and is the main mentor for about ten apprentice beekeepers every year. The program includes hands-on training from the first day, and some required reading about bee biology, diseases, mating and hive behavior. After two years, a beekeeper can take a master beekeeping test if they choose to and become a mentor to newbies and work in the field professionally. I continue to be a mentor every year on a volunteer basis.

Beekeeping has been on the rise in recent years due to a growing understanding that bees are essential players in our food systems. With colony collapse disorder more people are looking to be a part of the solution by planting pollinator gardens and keeping their own hives, instead of relying on large-scale industrial honey production based on monocrops. In turn, an increase in urban beekeeping lets bees roam around cities, using stalwart perennials and seasonal blooms in city parks and community gardens as their lunch and dinner — creating a complex, localized honey in every spot.

According to the National Honey Board, “there are an estimated 115,000–125,000 beekeepers in the United States” and “the vast majority are hobbyists with less than 25 hives.”

Noah Wilson-Rich started out keeping bees as a part of his university work. One of the early urban beekeeping entrepreneurs in the United States, Wilson-Rich started Best Bees Company, which is now a nationwide beekeeping service, out of his Boston apartment in 2006, taking orders by phone and installing hives in the back yards and rooftops of various professors and neighbors. At the time, colony collapse disorder was first making headlines. Wilson-Rich, who was finishing his Ph.D. at Tufts, was studying how social organisms, like bees, resist diseases.

Over the years, he and the Best Bees team developed a scientific approach to understand honey “DNA,” the amalgamation of different nectar sources the city bees forage.

An urban beehive thriving on a residential rooftop in Boston. The plant diversity in cities tends to be much higher than in rural and suburban areas, which creates more varied honey flavors. Photo by Anthony Fusco.

Rooftop spaces can also be used as a green space to grow herbs, vegetables, and flowers, attracting honey bees, native bees, and different kinds of pollinators, including butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. Photo by Christopher Porter.

“Cities have eight times more plant diversity…, which creates a more unique flavor [in honeys],” Wilson-Rich said.

For Wilson-Rich, urban beekeeping is about more than tasty honey though, it’s about changing perspectives, helping people think about the cityscape as an opportunity to create better habitat for pollinators, and possibly, improve bee health.

Wilson-Rich advocates using rooftop space not only for hives, but as potential green space, where a resident can grow herbs, vegetables, and flowers, attracting honey bees, native bees, and different kinds of pollinators, including butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. Creating green space is a long-term investment in the property — what was once seen as a bonus amenity in a packed city — is now a “must-have” for many city dwellers,” he notes.

On the other side of the country, Robert MacKimmie, a longtime resident of San Francisco, has been keeping bees for almost three decades. For most of that time, he was one of a few devoted beekeepers in the city. But in recent years, he’s noticed an exponential increase urban beekeepers throughout the Bay Area. Now, it seems like everyone has bees.

“I go out the door, and truly, it’s my dog walker, my hair cutter, my barista,” MacKimmie said.

MacKimmie sees that as a positive development— the more beekeepers, the more bees to help pollinate the city’s flora. However, all these new beekeepers also have to deal with some challenges, including choosing a site for the hives to minimize human-bee interactions, ensuring there’s enough habitat around for bees to forage in, and the ubiquitous varroa mites.

Varroa mite infestations, of course, have been a persistent problem for beehives. These mites are small, copper or white colored parasites, first cited in in the early twentieth century in Java, that feed off honeybees. These mites enter the hive attach themselves to an individual bee during foraging or mating then reproduce in the hive and suck a bee’s body fat — essential tissue for hormone regulation and nutrient storage — out of its stomach, leaving it debilitated. Although at low levels a colony might be able to survive, mites can cripple a hive. Almost every beekeeper in the US must grapple with mites during at least some part of the year, if not year-round.

And urban beekeeping, as opposed to rural or agricultural keeping, poses even more challenges than mites. Though urban areas might have a greater diversity of plants, in many of cities and towns, flora may be sparse for miles, making it difficult to achieve robust honeybee hives with ample amounts of honey, pollen, and nectar.

In addition, there is always the matter of space and where to place hives. Wilson-Rich, and Best Bees, finds it’s not about ground placement — choosing to place many hives on rooftops, where there is unused square footage, and doesn’t incite the ire of neighbors as easily.

To most urban beekeepers, maintaining a few healthy honeybee hives is the number one priority, but recently more keepers are deciding to invest time and conservation work to other pollinators whose populations are now imperiled, including native bees.

Beekeepers at a home in Governor’s Island, New York, check a hive for mites. Varroa mite infestations have been a persistent problem for beehives. Photo by Nick Normal.​

“[With a diversity of plants and flowers] every building would have a habitat, in order to improve bee health, and not just honeybees,” says Wilson-Rich.

He says refugee pollinators that aren’t getting the resources they need from monocrops and competition should be able to come to cities to establish new populations, based on the diversity of flora, if city dwellers are willing to create the habitat for them.

Even though Wilson-Rich and MacKimmie are urban beekeeping on opposite coasts, one thing is continually on their minds — how to keep more bees mite-free and alive over winter.

If a queen, and some of her brood can make it through the winter, it will be far more likely for the hive to be robust by spring, when nectar sources become plentiful again. The hive will have a head start over other colonies that must increase their numbers rapidly, in order for young bees to grow into foragers, who collect the hive’s food.

By August or September, a hive population naturally starts to decrease to make room for food stores, but mite populations continue to grow. To prevent the mites from taking hold, most beekeepers treat the hives at interval times with different chemicals like formic and oxalic acid with pads applied directly to the hive or vapor, which kill the mites living on adult bees and in capped brood.

But what bothers MacKimmie is some keepers don’t put up a fight. Instead, they leave their hives untreated, believing without evidence, that the chemicals will seep into the comb or honey. When bees are left to fend for themselves, the results are usually grim. If a mite population explodes within a hive, they can overwhelm the bee colony starting at the larval level resulting in no healthy brood. They leave open wounds in adults and are vectors for various bee diseases. And mites, just like any parasite in a packed environment, can travel quickly.

“It’s not a message people like,” Mackimmie said about the need to treat with chemicals. “It’s not a solution to not treat. Their bees die over and over again.”

With bee populations at stake globally, Wilson-Rich asks some of the larger questions about how urban beekeeping can make a difference in bee health. There are shifting baselines, he said, with an analogy to coral reef ecology, to how we define what is needed, and what is necessary.

“Should beekeepers try to restore populations to what they were 50 years ago? 100 years ago?” he asked.

Wilson-Rich believes honeybee population maintenance is important — his company depends on it — yet it should not be at the expense or indifference to native bee populations

One thing is for sure though: people want more bees, not in the least because bees signify abundance. MacKimmie recalls how back in the 1990s he brought over a hive to the yard of a neighbor whose apple tree wasn’t producing fruit. The next spring, she had a bumper crop.

Now I understand a beekeeper’s role is to make the best possible environment for a honeybee to thrive and reproduce, and that means anywhere its possible, even in cities. And I like the idea of beekeepers as willing supplicants, eagerly balancing on high rises, creating gardens on small patches of sidewalk, and working within communities to keep bees flying.

“It’s like having an orchestra play but no can hear it,” says MacKimmie. “If bees aren’t there to play the flowers. “

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