City Bees

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

By: Toni Burnham

As You Make Connections Try To Avoid Conflicts and Build Consensus

Do I tell anyone? is one of the most frequently asked questions in urban beekeeping. And of course I am going to give you a relatively complicated answer! It’s not a simple“yes or no” because how much and what you have to say about beekeeping will change over time, as will your interactions with the people around you while you keep bees. Of course, the fact that you are reading this in a national beekeeping magazine is a pretty fair indication of how well I succeeded in being a “secret” beekeeper. And coming out from undercover has turned out to be a blast, while it was also tempting to lecture you here about the benefits of connecting and sharing with your neighbors.

But this is the real world, and the whole idea that someone can tell you how to handle your hometown relations is preposterous. But after ten years of doing this downtown, some of those experiences might inform your own, and I would like to have your back on this.

No Trust for Strangers

Tell me if you have heard this one– in my city neighborhood, con artists actually go door to door saying that they are the not-too-distant relative of a household “just a couple of houses away,” that they have locked themselves out and need cab fare (neither assertion true, FYI.) This ploy often works, because in greenifying neighborhoods like the ones where urban beekeepers tend to congregate, we tend to have little idea who moved in years before we did. There’s often a demographic fault line, too, that makes us that much more unknown to each other. If we do not know who actually lives in a house, it’s pretty hard to judge how they might feel about the beehives on the roof. So how should we proceed?

It’s probably a good idea to start carefully and a bit worriedly, and then build your comfort zone over time. You will need to know more about our neighbors in order to relax more in your apiary, but this does not have to be instant. You can reduce the fear your bees inspire if you are more of a known quantity and introduce yourself bit by bit. In addition, anything you can do to reduce the actual risk your bees represent, and to deploy more resources, both in skill and helping hands, to ensure the health and peaceable-ness of your bees will benefit you, them, and the unsuspecting masses around you.

Being ready to answer their questions, lots of them, is another way to reduce the strangeness, build interest, and increase the trust your neighbors feel toward you and your bees. Even if you are new, you can answer almost everything they can think of if you have attended a short course or read through a good textbook. You might want to let your neighbors know that you have completed a course if you have! If you want a cheat sheet, we have a compilation of dozens of questions (and answers) asked by America’s elementary school students in a national pollinator webcast at Dr. Elizabeth Capaldi Evans of Bucknell also has a fun book called Why Do Bees Buzz published by Rutgers.

Risk = Probability x Impact

How much should you tell, who, and when? Your mileage will vary, based on this easy calculation. The risk you face is roughly related to how likely a problem is to emerge multiplied by how bad the situation can get. But your risk might start high and get lower, or go the other way if you or your neighbors act like jerks. A lot of this is in your hands. You can build protection through social connections, building your own skills, alliances with community institutions, thoughtful bribery, acting like the kind of person who deserves trust, and avoiding the battles you might not win.

When I started keeping bees on my townhouse roof, I had nowhere else to place an apiary, and no allies to help me out in a pinch. Beekeeping was also not specifically protected in this city, and I did not yet know how to move a hive, let alone a full sized colony or two down a spiral staircase. My risk went all the way from possibly being sued to problems with the police. I lost a bit of sleep, and decided to keep a low profile. No surprise there.

Cloak and dagger strategies that seemed to help at the time included painting the hives to blend in, working the bees only on weekdays (when my neighbors were unlikely to be outside, looking up), storing empty woodenware indoors, obsessively preventing swarms and robbing, providing a delicious, algae-edged water source, and keeping my mouth shut within a 10 block radius. I got the chatter out of my system by anonymously blogging like a maniac and going to beekeeping meetings in the suburbs.

A decade later, a lot of this seems quaint. Beekeeping is now legal, most of my neighbors know, there are at least two crisis apiaries available in or near town, a bunch of urban beeks are around to help each other out, and we have moved many a hive in our time. We have even been known to hive sit for each other. It’s a nicer world. But it wasn’t instant, and not everyone gets here.

What happened in between was piecemeal – the standard advice is to hand out honey from your first harvest, but I would give slightly different advice. My husband and I first shared honey with folks in the general vicinity (but not next door) whom we knew through other connections, mainly dog walking and gardening. We gauged their reactions, and asked them to try the honey, tell their friends about it, and tell us what folks said. And then we tried closer, and closer. We found that having some other connection ahead of time really helped neighbors get over the strangeness of the idea of urban beekeeping, and that having a relationship they valued tempered an out-and-out rejection or complaint. It’s easier to trust someone you know, and most folks are conflict-averse.

It was also important to join up with a beekeeping community nearby in order to become a better beekeeper and better beekeeping neighbor, as well as to get help if we needed it. The suburban beekeeping associations also received requests from people in my town for speakers willing to talk about the bees, and to outline how garden clubs and churches and schools could help. Those talks created more beekeepers, opened up potential apiaries, and created many citizen advocates when legalization came around. It’s worth your while to invest in this invaluable social insulation from risk, and community protection for your bees, maybe even before you talk to the gal or guy next door.

There’s the Law, and Then There’s Life

But here’s another truth – there are people on my block with whom I do not share a language, and they have still not heard from me. There are people here who complain to the authorities rather than to the neighbor who is irking them, so they may never know about my colonies (if we can help it). This is all really a shame, but even with the law on my side, with an out-apiary in my back pocket, with a much stronger skillset, and friends with helping hands, it’s easier to let those neighbors slide. In a pinch, the law and peer pressure will probably win, but we still have to live with each other.

My buddy Karl was kind of an “out” beekeeper from the beginning: he had a cool completely legal hiveon- a-porch setup that his neighbors OK’d – until they didn’t. They probably would not have won the lawsuit which they threatened, but who needs a new hobby like that? Luckily, Karl is a great community minded guy and his gals moved to the top of a crypt in a nearby cemetery. Another friend, Bradley, wrote his neighborhood bulletin board that he would be getting a completely legal hive on his roof, to which all but one neighbor said, “Ok, cool.” But that one neighbor wrote an email that was almost funny to read: she started out ill at ease about her possible sensitivity to stings, and worked her way up to a terrified state where she would become a prisoner in her own home, no longer able to eat jam on her toast in the garden (the latter 100% verbatim). Bradley got his hive, but the neighborhood stopped getting updates. And freaky lady is still eating toast in happy ignorance.

Consensus or Else: Choose Your Battles

When I first started shopping for out-apiaries, especially at sites run by bureaucracies, one facet of human nature showed itself loud and clear: if something is strange, scary, or unfamiliar, the easy answer is “No.” That negative can be devastating in the fragile environment inhabited by most urban beekeepers: many times I have been to zoning boards and city council meetings where the vote to allow bees had to be unanimous to pass, though there was no legal reason why. Most neighborhood organizations operate on this principle, and one loud naysayer can blow away a lot of the fight that would otherwise be on your side.

If I think “no” is coming, I don’t ask. More hopeful strategies such as lobbying that person’s boss, creating peer pressure, presenting fun and inspiring information, and seeking forgiveness rather than permission (be careful with that one!) are all more likely to work, with fewer permanent consequences. Once a person issues that “no!” they tend to be dug in, and the fight will not be pretty. If you do manage to overturn a “no,” you will likely have a long term opponent who does not wish you or your bees well.

Basic advice

Your situation is probably as unique as your spot on the planet, but I do think some wisdom applies in most cases. First, don’t make the bees pay for the tortured relationships that can exist between people. Reveal as much about your beekeeping as your community connections can handle, and manage your bees with an eye to the impact their presence might have on those around. As your expertise and your alliances grow, you can share more. Keeping yourself undercover can be a long term strategy, but you never decrease the risk you face or the worry you carry around with you if you don’t work to make space for beekeeping where you live. Make sure that the folks who share their space with your bees get some benefit at some point, maybe a jar of honey, maybe some information about how the environment works, maybe a unique visit to the inside of a colony. But realistically know this: you will never get 100% of everybody to be comfortable with anything, and as you make connections try to avoid conflicts and build consensus. If you take care of your bees responsibly, and are within the letter of the law, sometimes that is the most that anyone needs to know.


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