Buzz Spreads On Urban Beekeeping

It's already hot on a recent Sunday morning -- just after 7 a.m. -- and while many New Yorkers are still sleeping, Vivian Wang inspects her two beehives on the balcony of a Manhattan apartment.

Across the river in Brooklyn, David Glick tends his two hives in a shady backyard after a full day's work as a paralegal. As neighbors fire up their grill for dinner, Glick sweats inside his beekeeping suit examining row after row in the hives.

Wang and Glick are not alone: Urban beekeeping is on the rise. With widening attention on environmental issues like food sources and bees' health, more city dwellers like Glick and Wang believe beekeeping is worth the effort and the occasional sting.

"It's not for people who are lazy," said Glick. "You have to do inspections and do work on it. But it's much less work than a dog and much less work than a cat."

New York City Abuzz

Earlier this year, New York City repealed a ban on beekeeping after the city's health department ruled that honeybees were not public health risks.

Interest in beekeeping jumped. The New York City Beekeepers Association had some 70 students for a spring 2009 course on urban beekeeping. One year later, the organization, which Glick and Wang are both part of, had 220 attendees.

"I think that many people are interested in urban beekeeping because it allows them to connect to nature," said founder and president Andrew Coté. "It allows them to contribute to their community. It encourages urban gardens, community gardens to flourish. And I think that it's a wonderful way to be close to nature."

There are now 38 registered honey bee hives within New York City limits, according to July statistics provided by the city's health department. But Coté says the real figure is probably a lot higher. He estimates there are between 200 and 300 hives tended by 150 and 200 beekeepers.

As beekeeping gains popularity, even the city that once forbade it is now getting into the act. The Parks Department is planning to put two hives on the roof of its Central Park headquarters within the next three weeks. "The Parks Department is proud to welcome honeybees to the Arsenal roof," New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said in a statement. "As New York City's #1 pollinators, bees help increase the quality and the quantity of plants we have all around the city, from helping veggies in Community Gardens produce seeds for future plantings to helping wildflowers and trees reproduce, to producing sweet treats like honey, in addition to wax and propolis."

The Buzz Spreads

A few hours south on I-95 from New York City, the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild has been in existence less than a year and already has 40 official members, plus 100 people on its e-mail list.

Joel Eckel, the founder and a beekeeper for four years, said "I think especially people in urban settings are beginning to be more concerned about where food comes from," he said, calling beekeeping "something you can do to get that connection and feel like you're doing your part to make a difference."

In conjunction with other organizations, the Beekeepers Guild is planning the first annual Philadelphia Honey Festival in early September.

The festivities include the dedication of a historical marker on the 1810 Philly birthplace of Rev. Lorenzo L. Langstroth. Credited as the "father of American beekeeping," Langstroth invented the movable frame beehive still in use today, which allows bees to create honeycomb in individual, removable frames that can be inspected.

This swelling rank of beekeepers are forcing more city governments to reconsider ordinances against the hobby. Apart from New York City, beekeeping bans have been repealed in cities like Denver and Minneapolis over the past several years. Helena, Mont., dropped its ban in July and other cities like Green Bay, Wis., and Santa Monica, Calif., are weighing revisions to their bans.

Beekeeping Politics

As the longtime editor of Bee Culture -- a monthly magazine that's been in publication since 1873 – Kim Flottum has a front-row seat in the recent resurgence of beekeeping. He said this comeback is also happening in suburbs and rural areas, but the trend is most apparent in cities because of the greater concentration of people and media attention.

It's difficult to nail down the exact number of "backyard beekeepers," Flottum noted, because there aren't always official forms or lists of registered beekeepers. By his estimates, there are now between 85,000 and 100,000 nationwide--a 10 to 15 percent jump over the past three to four years that's offset gradual attrition over the last 20 years. "It definitely is on the rise from where I sit. It's great to see," he said.

Recreational beekeepers play an important role in the industry. Hobbyists and "part-timers," who have between 25 and 299 hives, make up 40 percent of the honey produced, according to the National Honey Board, a federal research and promotion board connected to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Flottum recently added a political dimension to his advocacy. In March, Flottum helped launch a "Wall of Shame," which lists the approximately 90 cities and towns forbidding beekeeping. The site's original intent was to call out places banning beekeeping, but Flottum says it's becoming a rallying ground for would-be beekeepers looking to overturn local ordinances. "We've been able to establish an unofficial, underground source of information," said Flottum.

One plan of attack seems to be gaining traction, said Flottum. The strategy calls for revisions that approach the danger of out-of-control bees on a case-by-case nuisance problem -- like a barking dog or loud neighbor -- instead of imposing a blanket ban, he said.

Colony Collapse Disorder Motivates Urban Beekeepers

Yet in the past several years, Colony Collapse Disorder has become a high-profile affliction decimating beehives. In this phenomenon, the number of adult honey bees in a hive plummet. The queen and young bees remain but there is no evidence of dead honey bees. The disorder still lacks a known cause though there are some theories, like a new parasite or the effect of pesticides.

The phenomenon has serious implications. Through their busy work, bees are directly or indirectly responsible for one in three mouthfuls of the average human diet, according to the Agricultural Research Service, the research arm of the Department of Agriculture.

Wang, an environmental attorney, cites the disorder as one reason that motivates urban beekeepers. "I think for the most part people that I met, the community of urban beekeepers, are people who care about nature," she said. "I think a lot of people have heard about the decline of pollinator levels, lately, like with Colony Collapse Disorder. I also do think there's a growing interest in local food and sort of recognizing how does our food get from farm to fork."

From October 2009 to April 2010, 28 percent of beekeeping operations reported colony loss with signs indicating Colony Collapse Disorder, according to data from the Apiary Inspectors of America and the Agricultural Research Service. These hives sustained losses of 44 percent compared to colonies without CCD, which lost 25 percent of their hive. Loss levels are typically between 10 and 20 percent because some honey bees simply cannot hold up in wintertime, said Kim Kaplan, Agricultural Research Service spokesperson.

Honey Helps Neighborhood Stick Together

As beekeeping spreads, neighbors are actually running to -- and not away from -- these hives. Back in Brooklyn, Glick says when the family hosting his two hives notified neighbors, it actually strengthened the relationships on the block.

Glick and the family learned, for instance, that one neighbor had a doctorate in the study of insects and it's inspired the two young children next door. "The four- and seven-year-old kids next door are reading children's books about honeybees because they were able to see it up close -- and they're always excited to see it," said Glick, adding earlier, "It's really brought people together."

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