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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Buzz on Bees

Urban Beekeepers Keep Cities Abuzz with Pollinators

Home sweet home: Not all honeybees work far afield--some are making honey high in the rooftops



FLICKR/MINDFRIEZE

Paris, San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago. These cosmopolitan cities hardly conjure up the bucolic image of an ideal home for honeybees. But to millions of busy bees, they're just that. Whereas large-scale commercial beekeepers are busy trucking hives from state to state to pollinate crops, city-dwellers are learning a thing or two about home-raised honey. Bees are being cultivated on roofs everywhere from the Paris Opera House to Chicago's City Hall.

Like the honeybee itself, urban beekeepers are a "small but mighty" group, says fourth-generation beekeeper Andrew Coté, founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association. With so much buzz about colony collapse disorder (CCD), even those who live far from the farms and orchards are pitching in to beef up the nation's bee populations (while reaping some sweet rewards for themselves).

But is it wise to invite bees into the city limits? Neighbors might have something to say when they see a full-blown hive on an adjacent rooftop or in a neighbor's backyard. But to that Coté, an assistant professor of English at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Conn., echoes the familiar wisdom: "Honeybees are not interested in you. They're interested in nectar."

Philip Starks, an associate professor of behavioral ecology at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and head of a lab there that studies bees and wasps, actually thinks it's a great idea. "The small keepers tend to stress their colonies less," he says, "and we certainly want to encourage that." Less stress means healthier bees, and healthier bees mean healthier green spaces. Green roof gardens, community vegetable plots—even windowsill and fire escape flowerpots "would certainly be bolstered [by] having more honeybees," Starks says.

"Bees take care of themselves," he adds. "They're remarkable pets in that way… [and] they're a lot less expensive than a cat." Beekeeping is a pastime surprisingly well suited for the city, Coté notes. "It's a type of gardening people can do without a garden," he says. " And really, the bees do most of the work."

Can city bees cut the mustard?
But can urban beekeeping really make a dent in the $15 billion in pollination work at stake with the threat of widespread CCD? Unlikely, Cote says, noting that bees keep their collecting activities close to home (within a few miles), so their services won't be much help for agricultural crops. He notes, however, that none of the city or other small-scale beekeepers he knows have had trouble with CCD.

There is also a question of just how many bees a concrete jungle can support. "You can have too many hives in an area [where] there's not enough [food] to support a colony," Starks says. But in leaner times, keepers can supplement hives with sugar water and protein supplements, which are "like a PowerBar for a human," says Noah Wilson-Rich, a PhD candidate in Stark's lab. Winter is a concern for beekeepers in northern climes (urban, suburban and otherwise) set on keeping their bees at home year-round. Starks points out that for his bees to survive a Massachusetts winter, he makes sure that each hive has at least 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of honey to eat.

Bees might be adept airborne navigators, but they aren't necessarily built to live high in the sky. Starks wonders if high winds and the chill might be a drain on bee energy for hives planted on top of tall city buildings. Coté doesn't know exactly how high they can thrive, but he says the highest hive he's ever worked with was six stories up—and the bees didn't seem to mind.

Could city honey possibly taste as sweet as its country cousin? In a word—yes. Some even claim that it's sweeter because of the wide variety of flowers available. It all depends on where the bees get their pollen, Stark says, noting that the taste of honey is "a reflection of the time of year and the type of flower." Regardless of its origin, he adds, "there's a richness from the honey you get that's not highly processed."

There's also a theory that eating locally pollinated honey may help reduce local pollen allergies. The idea is analogous to the flu shot, explains Coté, who is also a co-founder of Norwalk, Conn.-based Bees Without Borders, a nonprofit group that teaches beekeeping to people in developing countries. As the body is exposed to small amounts of the local pollen through the honey, it gradually builds a tolerance.

A (forbidden) taste of honey
But beekeeping isn't encouraged in all cities. Get caught with a hive in one of New York City's five boroughs and you could be fined up to $2,000. Rather than protecting residents, Coté says that laws like this might actually be making urban beekeeping more dangerous. By forcing beekeepers underground (so to speak), it keeps them from seeking the training and support they might need to keep hives from going into swarm mode. Swarming happens when a hive begins to exceed its capacity, at which point some of the bees and a new queen break off and relocate en mass to build a new hive—be it on a tree, lamppost or a neighbor's eave. Swarm mode, Coté asserts, is actually more dangerous to beekeeping's image than to civilians. And, he adds, the city's myriad hazards—from dogs to bike messengers—present more of a public safety risk than busy honeybees do.

Last month, New York City Councilman David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights) introduced legislation to allow beekeeping in the Big Apple. Legalized beekeeping would "stimulate just the kind of niche manufacturing sectors that will be critical to an economic turnaround," he told The Brooklyn Paper. But urban beekeeping isn't exactly something that brings in big bucks, Coté says. "People are doing it to connect to nature," he says, but it takes a lot of time and dedication: "It's like buying a boat."

In preparation for high bee season in the spring and summer, Coté plans to install 18 new hives over the next few weekends on undisclosed Manhattan and Brooklyn rooftops. Coté is the first to admit that the hobby is more likely to drain rather than fill the change jar. But the millions of little workers can green cityscapes and sweeten combs—all for the price of a few square feet of rooftop.

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