City Bees

By: Toni Burnham

In the U.S., cities are about as native as honey bees.

Since it’s Winter for many of us, and the best we can do for our bees is wonder and worry about how they are doing, we could consider doing something else with our mental energy: making alliances and building bridges. 

There are very few things you can say about Big Cities that begin with “always . . .” and “never . . .” but here is one I’m pretty sure of: “You can always rest assured that one city beekeeper will never own all the resources that the bees in those colonies will need in a year.” The bees forage for anything from a mile or two to four or five in any direction, each hive sucks up a gallon or two of water (and whatever is in it) on a hot day, your bees bring home in the nectar and pollen what your neighbors put in the soil.

In the city, we depend on the aggregate choices of people who will never see inside a hive, including some folks  who would oppose their presence at all. We therefore need friends, especially folks who are working on urban green spaces, and they need us. They might need to be told that, however.

If urban beekeeping is going to gain a safe and permanent foothold, it needs to be woven in with the fabric of the organizations and activists who strive to make cities a decent place to live (for everybody in them). My secret evil plan is to have urban beekeepers wind up, in the minds of the average citizen, as somewhat less boring than the orchid growers and somewhat more boring than the model railroaders. Normal, run-of-the-mill geeks.

Why is this so important? The future is urban, and lots of groups are trying to figure out how to make that work. For example, here’s a picture of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the place that nine million Washingtonians and Baltimoreans (and our suburban neighbors) call home. It shows land use changes between 1792-1992. In 1997, Maryland’s governor predicted that by 2020, if trends held, the amount of land you see used for development would double.

Acr7102037146368-74202Trends held. They held almost everywhere in North America (the exception is Maine, but if you move there you might ruin everything). [Source, United States (Census) Summary: 2010]

There are all kinds of predictions about urban growth, some based on percentage of the population (the WHO says 70% of us by 2050) or by land use (triple the current space by 2030/Sante Fe Institute). Many of us are urban beekeepers because we want to play a role in making this work somehow.

If you talk to the hardcore landscape restoration groups, they might not think that there is an obvious place for honey bees in their mission. At a recent conference of the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council – a lovely group with whom I have no problem at all – most of their eight guiding principles include some version of the word “native,” and Apis mellifera is not that.

But here in the US, cities are about as native as honey bees (most towns less so). Eva Crane points to the first arrival of European honey bees in 1622, Dr. Deb Delaney of UDel has found traces of Spanish Conquest DNA in West Coast bees that may be older than that. As crazy as our neighbors might think us for harboring colonies of 50K (or more) stinging insects in our gardens or on our roofs, colonists on small wooden ships 400 years ago thought it was a great idea to travel in close quarters for months on end. For about 5,000 years that we know about, people and honey bees have lived together in cities and countryside. Any reason for getting rid of one sort of logically requires you to think about extirpating the other. (Personally, I do not feel like being removed.) 

And, in desperate cases, you can point out that North America did have native honey bees – 14 million years ago [Engel, M. et al. 2009]. 

If you want to help people, especially kids, connect to the insect world, Apis mellifera is hard to beat.

If you want to help people, especially kids, connect to the insect world, Apis mellifera is hard to beat.

So why should folks who work on greening the city listen to us? Some maintain that there is plenty of pollination without the presence of bees, but the anecdotal data from managed gardens in DC points to higher yields with managed bees, especially for nonnative crops and early bloomers. As for native species, it is possible and instructive to have kids make and place Osmia tubes and blocks, for example, but participants have to take your word for what is going on inside unless you destroy the nest to show them, there’s activity for maybe six weeks a year, and repopulation of your block is a roll of the dice unless Osmia are already common in your area (begging the question of why you needed to bring any in…just like honey bees). 

From a program development standpoint, it is tough to overestimate the effectiveness of honey bees. If you want to help people, especially kids, connect to the insect world, Apis mellifera is hard to beat.

Why? Honey bees are there all year (if we can keep them alive). You can open up their colonies and see everything that is going on without killing the subject, you can watch the foragers go out and the pollen go in, and connect it with what is blooming right-here, right-now. At some point, you can experience what your hometown tasted like that Summer, and link it to probable source plants. You can put hives on imperfect land in almost any neighborhood, and later move them around if your program has to shift. Over time, you and your participants can develop a gut relationship to them and their ties to the green world based on human/bee cooperation. If that does not restore the relationship between people and the ecosystems around them, I do not know what does.

And presenting honey bees to people is almost cheating. In my town, the hardest sell comes from the lowest income areas. DC’s arborists, for example, report that poorer wards both request fewer trees and resist the expansion of the green canopy. For them, nature is a place where assailants can hide, and leaves are things that clutter the sidewalks and clog the drains. This Spring in the Washington Post, a longtime DC resident said “The trees create more problems than when they weren’t there.” So you can imagine the response when yuppies show up with boxes of stinging insects.

But in schools and community gardens, face to face contact with bees has an almost magic effect: fear turns into advocacy. An observation hive will first bring titters of concern, but will soon be surrounded with kids and adults glued to the drama within. Find the queen, show the eggs, try the honey, joke about the drones, link the whole thing to pumpkins and apples and ice cream, and then release your new battalion of converts onto the streets. Our bees can make the gardens of landscape restorers come to life in new ways.

Toni Burnham keeps her bees on rooftops in the Washington, DC area where she lives

Toni Burnham keeps her bees on rooftops in the Washington, DC area where she lives

What can the activists whom we are trying to persuade do for us? There’s the political part, where they show up for hearings and defend our right to bee here; they also create potential apiary spaces, reach widely different populations and neighborhoods, support issues like limitations on pesticide use, and might choose to join our ranks. They plant bee forage, clean waterways, insist on remediating contaminated areas, and educate adults and children about why nature matters. They are part of our habitat, and we are glad!

In times when our communities are prone to tearing themselves apart over the issues about which we cannot agree, rather than riding the principles which we share as far as we can take them, beekeepers can make another contribution to a crowded future. We can make friends and take them for what they are, and make other friends for different goals. We could do a lot worse than joining up with people who plant stuff and mind the soil and the water in the best way they know how. A healthier place for people is probably a better place for bees. 


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