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City bees are all the buzz

Beekeeping gains in the concrete jungle, despite some concerns.

(Page 3 of 3)

Toni Burnham, who blogs about urban beekeeping (City Bees), was inspired to start hives after hearing about London beekeepers. She has established several hives and was a consultant on the successful effort to put beehives on the White House lawn.

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She sees beekeeping as a key part of maintaining a healthy city. “If those plants that are the bottom line for ecological health in my town can produce adequate fruit and leaves, there’s a whole range of bugs, snakes, and birds that can survive,” she says.

One of the biggest challenges for urban beekeepers is neighbors who are unhappy about living near beehives. Many people are afraid of bees, and much of that fear is rooted in misunderstanding, says Fischer.

Since bee populations have declined, people understand them less, says Fischer, who as a child spent the summers playing baseball barefoot. Back then, grass-seed mixes included red clover, a bee favorite. Inevitably, children stepped on bees. There were tears, but parents took it in stride – “the response was a hug and a cookie,” he says.

Today, many people mistake one bodily response to a bee sting – some swelling and itching – for an allergic reaction and take their children to the emergency room, Fischer says.

If their nests are threatened, bees will sting. But, Calderone says, they don’t generally do so when away from their nests.

Still, bee swarms, which occur when part or all of a colony leaves its home en masse to find a new one, make headlines. Fischer, who is frequently called to remove them in New York, once was called to a site where a swarm had landed on a newspaper box. When he got there, police had closed the intersection and cordoned off the area with yellow crime scene tape. Several television crews were filming. “Swarms scare the civilians,” he says.

But swarms aren’t particularly dangerous, he says. The bees may number in the thousands, but lack a hive to defend and are focused on finding a new home, although they will sting if provoked. Fischer calls them “the most docile configuration of bees.”

Still, “it’s important to cultivate respect for [honeybees]. They’re not chickens, cats, or dogs,” says Mr. Repohl, whose community garden regularly hosts school groups.

Keeping bees may have another benefit for busy city dwellers – encouraging them to slow down. Ms. Burnham, who says she’s the type of person who drinks too much coffee and waves her hands around when she’s talking, likens beekeeping to yoga: “I plan my movements, and I do them deliberately. I’m thinking about the effect of my motions on these creatures. I have to be in a different way,” she says.

Michaela Hayes, who has a new hive in Brooklyn, agrees. “I love the bees; they’re so peaceful,” she says. Ms. Hayes dreams of the day when she’ll make ginger beer from her honey, but for now she’s content to watch the bees as they go about their business. “They’re fascinating to me. It’s kind of like a big science experiment for adults.”