By: Toni Burnham

It Can Happen!

My friend was at home the night that vandals climbed the high fence that completely blocked his beehive from passersby, then sprayed enough pesticide into the entrance to soak the concrete and make us cough the next day. Looking over his thousands of dead bees, I was glad that he had not come face to face with these people, folks way more dangerous than any honey bee.

My friend had never received a complaint, did not talk up his bees to the neighborhood, and they’d never thrown a swarm. When the police came, they refused to take a criminal complaint even though he had been a victim of criminal trespass and loss of a few hundred dollars of property. The only help he got was some cleanup assistance from fellow beekeepers and an idea of what pesticide was from an entomologist at the University of Maryland.

Here in DC, we’ve haven’t had a bee sting fatality since I set up my first hive in 2005. But at about a quarter of our ground level apiaries in public areas, we see something like this every year.

Beekeeping may belong in the city, but not everybody thinks so, and that’s why we have to think of this as the single least attractive feature of our chosen habitat. Just like a sure-fire mite treatment or the definitive response to CCD, this article promise a guaranteed solution, but we can talk about why and how vandalism is most likely, and some strategies for minimizing your risk.

Two-Legged Bears

Beehives are still curious things to most modern Americans. Folks have often never seen one, fewer have ever opened one, and many place beekeeping on a spectrum somewhere between the heroic and the bizarre. Among mammals, when the curiosity button gets pushed, the animal in question will seek some kind of interaction to satisfy that urge. If a beekeeper is available, we can show them a new world; if we are not, they poke it with a stick.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we tell students here that the most dangerous threat to an urban bee is three urban teenagers – mix ‘em up any way you want: any gender, any level of education, any economic status, any place on the planet – because it goes like this:

Teenager #1: “Isn’t that a beehive?

Teenager #2: “I hear they sting!”

Teenager #3: “I dare you!”

The key concept here is that they didn’t plan this. It’s an impulse crime, often taking place at night and in cold weather. Teenagers do similar damage to urban beehives to that which our rural counterparts describe by bears: lots of toppling, breaking and throwing of frames, damage to enclosures. If the little idiots push the hives in one direction, there’s a chance
there may be bees to save the next day. If they push it in the other, it’s probably a loss.

Preventative strategies

It pays to think about the risk from two-legged bears from the very beginning of your apiary site selection.

Are there barriers to entry? One reason to love urban rooftop apiaries is their restricted access. Most agree that fences are the absolute minimum protection for an urban apiary at ground level (if only to keep dogs and toddlers from inadvertently stumbling into boxes full of stinging insects) but minimal is also the level of protection they provide. At least they broadcast “Authorized Persons Only” in a way that everyone understands.

Is the hive site low profile? 99 days out of 100, out of sight is out of mind. Can you manage lines of sight or mute the paint color on the boxes? Can the hive be placed at maximum distance from a footpath? If you are in a garden, is there a chance that taller plantings can be placed between the hive and the most popular routes? If you are not in a garden, is there any chance for a strategic container shrub or two?

Can you add camouflage to your fence? If you have a fence, you may have the option of installing fence slats or fence screen. This is a product that construction companies attach to chain link around active building sites to block wind-carried debris and hide the temporary ugly before the beautiful new takes shape. It’s also a tool for managing bee flight upward, and for causing nearby pedestrians to remain clueless. If you have to buy it yourself, prices start at $10 per linear foot. But if you are not particular, you can reach out to the companies that are prominently featured on the fences of projects nearing completion, and ask them if they are interested in recycling the stuff and getting a positive shout out from neighborhood beekeepers. Of course, then your beehives will be advertised as attractive modern living locations…

Make it really hard. Junior the Jerk did not prepare for his hive attack, so making it harder to pull off will reduce his/her success and increase the likely cost to the perpetrator. We are moving to ultra-stable hive stands in many of our locations: not just 2”x 4” legs that rest on the ground surface, but wider footings that will require more leverage to overturn (we are experimenting with wedges that extend front and back as well as 1’ diameter disks attached to the bottom of hive stand legs). This Winter, we will be strapping hive boxes together (to prevent them breaking apart on impact) and to holes drilled in the stand. In some locations we will be securing the stands to the ground with spikes. None of these measures is a guarantee, but they will require time on the part of the vandals, be hard to figure out in the dark, and give the bees a chance to provide useful feedback. For the hard core, there is a You Tube video of a guy who built metal cages that secure his hives to pallets on the ground. (Google “Vandal proofing a bee hive”)

Do you have lots of friendly eyes on the prize? Reducing isolation and improving response times can reduce the incidence and the impact of vandalism. Locally, most news of vandalism comes very quickly after the event, because most ground level hives are located in micro-communities (garden allotments, schoolyards, neighborhood parks) where there are lots of people looking out for the bees and rooting for them.

It’s hard to be low profile in that bright white veil, puffing away with that smoker. At this point, turn lemons into lemonade. When you are working a hive in a public place and attract an audience, please take a moment to answer questions and to share the wonder of bees with them – and to recruit Average Jane and Normal Joe to their admiration and defense. You have then also helped with that “what can I do with my curiosity?” problem. 

Bribery can help, too. If possible, it is a grand idea to distribute small amounts of honey to as many people as you can in the surrounding community: we have had both vandalism and swarm reports phoned in right away even by dog walkers!

Victims of Fear, Uncertainty, and Dread

Students in our short courses here have heard this many times: “If only 1 person out of 100 in this city is an irreconcilable bee-phobic-hater, there are 10,500 of them running the streets every day (about half as many at night, when the commuters go home).” Just to belabor this, that’s over 150 per square mile. Personally, 1% sounds a little low. So yeah, you’ll run into them. What’s your plan?

Someone who is certain that “those bees don’t belong there” is very much like the jerk(s) who invaded my friend’s home and poisoned his hive: they don’t care about the law, the assault is planned in advance, and it is likely to be effective. They also think, fundamentally, that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing, and the failure of public safety officials to act only proves to them that this is so.

It’s harder to profile where this kind of hatefulness comes from with the certainty one can apply to teenagers. In this city, there is a perception that beekeeping (and lots of other “green” activities) are trendy preferences given to individuals with economic and political privilege. It’s also associated with demographic change, putting the poor bees in the middle of the age-old social struggle of “us versus them” with fearful “us” being the group that feels pushed out of changing neighborhoods.

On the flip side, I have learned never to challenge an upscale parent on a mission. In one of the poshest neighborhoods here, the schoolyard beehive was nixed by a single maternal meltdown of nuclear proportions. Some news reports have linked poisonings in community gardens to hives installed over a small number of parental objections, but this was not proved. Or apparently even investigated.

In addition, the phantom “fatal bee sting allergy” looms large in the minds of some parents and others who are not fearful enough to actually ascertain (from an actual allergist) that they have one. That fear is apparently strong enough in some cases to provoke a criminal act before it reaches the level necessary to schedule a doctor’s appointment. It’s hard to track down firm morbidity figures, but it appears that somewhere between 40 and 100 people in the U.S. are known to die from stings from all members of the order Hymenoptera combined each year (honey bees, bumble bees, wasps, hornets), about half the number killed on the roads every day. But folks don’t slash the tires on the cars or block the roads next to the community garden where they toppled our hives last Winter.

Why? Because cars are “everyday” and bees are “strange.” And some folks feel they are involuntarily having to deal with strange. My friends: “dealing with strange” is life in the city.

Strategies for Managing Fear Vandals

There are long games as well as short term moves that must be applied to securing hives against haters. All of the strategies listed above for reducing impulse vandalism will help – short term – against inveterate phobias, but they will not change the field.

  • Know your neighborhood and your neighbors. Do you live in an area that is changing rapidly? Are you a new arrival? Have you made friends with anyone nearby yet? People you talk to are more likely to see you as a person and not a heedless threat to their wellbeing. Keep your antennae out for folks who signal unfriendliness or unhappiness with your bees, and watch for whether such stress seems on the rise. It’s worth starting a conversation with them, as well, to signal that you see their concern and would like to alleviate it through information or even a visit to your apiary. Plus, vandalism is a coward’s game, and they might worry about being identified. And this is sad: if you live in a hot hate zone, consider finding an out apiary. Not every site is habitat.
  • Explore easy geek options. Motion detector lights (as low as $20) freak guilty parties out, and wildlife cams (mine cost $100) will get their picture. Even cheap fake cameras may do the trick. 
  • Be boring. The fact that beekeeping is seen as funky and unfamiliar is not beneficial to your bees. Despite widely known facts like the link between fast food and poor health, and speeding and car crashes, what is familiar is unconsciously perceived as safe. Therefore, anything you can do to normalize beekeeping in your community, to become as boring as possible, will help your bees escape unwanted notice. 
  • Be all over the place. Do outreach to schools, churches, garden clubs, fairs: all the usual. And do it over and over. And get lots of voices to do it: this should have nothing whatsoever to do with personal notoriety. 
  • Insist on your rights. If there is an instance of beehive vandalism of any kind in your community, demand to file a police report. Provide evidence of the cash value of what was lost: bees, equipment, and harvest. If the police won’t cooperate, get your local beekeepers to complain, and loudly. Letters are better than emails. No farmer around here would let some jerk come in and kill his livestock, and no police officer would pretend that it was OK. It’s doubtful that prosecutions will follow, but being a big enough pain might cause the officer on the beat to keep an eye out for folks in back alleys with cans of bug spray.  
  • Complain like the devil on local social media and to the press, and link such crimes to others that inflict random harm. Mention CCD. Create a social environment where the perpetrator does not feel in the right, but like an outcast.

Take a breath

An article like this can do bad things to your head, but please remember the 90% or more of your fellow citizens who hope for the best and avoid doing harm. Sometimes the statements of outrage we have received after an apiary is vandalized give us a whole new picture of how much we mean, and the hope we give, to the communities in which we live.

To take a city site and turn it into successful bee habitat does require some forethought about vandalism, but this is just another part of facing an urban, human-dense future which is safe for bees (and everything else). And if your experience is like ours, almost all apiaries end up carrying on with support from fellow beekeepers and the community at large. It’s worth noting that once again the bees pay the price for human mis-perceptions and shortcomings, but we are more than able to work on these.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *