City bees are all the buzz

Beekeeping gains in the concrete jungle, despite some concerns.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Veteran beekeeper Jim Fischer consults with a newcomer.
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Honeybees may not be the first thing that come to mind when you think of Brooklyn. Yet here’s Yeshwant Chitalkar, high on a rooftop in the Red Hook section of the New York borough, opening a bright blue hive to check on its queen. The vista is a mix of parks, light industrial areas, and housing projects. Dr. Chitalkar works methodically, barehanded, carefully lifting out the hive’s frames, which are covered in a velvety, undulating layer of bees.

He is one of a growing number of urbanites who keep bees in cities across the country. Their motivations vary: Some are worried about the environmental impact of fewer bees to pollinate food crops. And some are urban gardeners who want to make their gardens more productive. Others say beekeeping is a way to connect with nature even in the heart of the concrete jungle.

Oh, and there’s the honey, too. Counterintuitive as it might seem, urban hives are generally as productive and healthy as rural ones. In a good year, one hive can produce up to 200 pounds of honey.

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Urban beekeeping isn’t all sweet, though. It can be hard, dirty work and the challenges are many: jittery neighbors; vandals; city ordinances banning the activity; and problems, such as mites and parasites, that vex beekeepers everywhere.

But that doesn’t daunt those who want to keep bees. This year there are at least 30 new hives in community gardens, on rooftops, and in backyards across New York. Most are the result of a series of beekeeping classes taught last winter by Jim Fischer, a veteran beekeeper who lives in Manhattan.

Mr. Fischer and some of his students formed the Gotham City Honey Co-op to buy beekeeping equipment in bulk, and hope eventually to set up a site where members can extract and bottle their honey. The co-op also plans to brand its honey and sell it to specialty stores.

The only hitch: Beekeeping is illegal in New York City.

Mr. Fischer and other Big Apple beekeepers are confident that the honeybee ban will be lifted soon. A city councilor has introduced a bill to legalize it, and urban gardening groups are pushing for it to be passed.

The situation is quite different in Chicago, where City Hall’s green roof boasts a beehive. Michael Thompson, who helped install the city-owned hive, has been keeping bees within the city limits since the 1970s.

Today he is the farm manager at the Chicago Honey Co-op, which has about a hundred hives on the city’s West Side. Many belong to people who give half their honey to the co-op in exchange for keeping their hives at the site.

The city is an ideal spot for bees, Mr. Thompson learned when he moved there from a rural area where he kept bees.

“It’s much better to keep bees in a city,” he says. In rural and suburban areas, pesticides sprayed for agriculture and mosquito control can also harm bees. But in the city, the use of these kinds of pesticides is less widespread.

“People have the perception that a hive in the city can’t make any honey at all,” Fischer says. “That’s just not true.”

Honeybees can find abundant nectar in parks and along tree-lined boulevards. Also, urban areas often have extensive ornamental gardens in bloom throughout the growing season.

But Nick Calderone, associate professor of entomology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., injects a note of caution. He says that hives can thrive in cities only if they’re near green spaces or gardens.

Many of the beekeepers Fischer knows are urban gardeners who began keeping bees because they wanted to increase their crops’ productivity. “If you want local food, you need local bees,” he says.

That’s why Roger Repohl of the Bronx became a beekeeper 10 years ago. Although his plants had plenty of flowers, they produced few vegetables. When he asked for advice from someone in the city’s Parks Department, he was told: “ ‘Oh, we don’t have pollinators in the South Bronx,’ ” he relates.

Although “some pollination is done by wind and rain, the majority is done by insects – including beetles, flies, butterflies, and, most significantly, by bees,” says Dr. Calderone. Many native species of bees are important pollinators, but their numbers have declined as their habitat has disappeared to development and large-scale agriculture.

Honeybees, which aren’t native to the United States, are used as pollinators on large farms as well as in personal gardens. But they are struggling, too.

The number of managed honeybee colonies in the US has dropped from 5 million to 2.5 million since the 1940s, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

And two mites that appeared in the US in the 1980s have been wreaking havoc on honeybee colonies since, says Calderone. Before their advent, home beekeepers might have lost 5 percent of their colonies per year and a migratory beekeeper 10 to 15 percent. Now, during bad years, beekeepers may lose five times that many colonies.

Then there’s the little-understood but much-publicized disease known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), which causes the mysterious disappearance of adult bees from colonies. While CCD’s cause is still not understood, “it’s certainly real and it’s certainly killing lots of bees, but exactly what it is, is hard to say,” says Calderone.

In urban areas, these problems haven’t discouraged gardeners from becoming beekeepers, And that’s good for all residents of the city, says Calderone. “Unless you want a totally sterile environment that’s devoid of all life other than people, you’re going to need plants. And to keep them functioning, you’re going to need pollinators.”

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.

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.”

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