“Strictly speaking,” wrote Sue Hubbell in A Book of Bees, “one never ‘keeps’ bees—one comes to terms with their wild nature.” The wild nature of Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, is part of the intrigue of beekeeping as a growing number of city dwellers discover the joy of keeping hives. Whether part of the trend toward urban agriculture or a response to reports of colony-collapse disorder, a recent crisis in which large populations of honey bees suddenly die, urban beekeeping is on the rise. Even the White House now hosts 70,000 bees in a hive near the South Lawn’s organic vegetable garden, with the harvested honey being given as state gifts or used in the honey ale craft-brewed in the presidential kitchen.
Until recently, keeping bees in large cities like New York was often a clandestine hobby, with beekeepers taking pains to keep their hives secret. But many cities have legalized beekeeping, with New York joining Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and San Francisco in approving urban hives. Beekeepers must adhere to published guidelines, which might include lot size, cleanliness, provision of water, and advice on managing the honey bee colony’s natural swarming instinct.
While the city’s 2003 installation of the beehives on the roof of city hall was part of former mayor Richard Daley’s aim to make Chicago “the greenest city in America,” it was also meant to inspire and educate its citizens about beekeeping and the importance of bees and other pollinators in urban areas. Michael S. Thompson cares for seven hives for the city, including two in the 20,000-square-foot rooftop garden atop city hall. An avid beekeeper since receiving his first beehive as a 12th-birthday gift from his parents, Thompson is also cofounder and farm manager of the Chicago Honey Co-op.
“Honey bees require a very small footprint and can be placed anywhere in a sunny location,” says Thompson. “But as with all animals, they need a specific sort of care. This is not a passive undertaking.” He says aspiring beekeepers should take a class and read a book or two prior to caring for bees, adding that it’s good to speak with the neighbors, too. “There is a natural fear of bees, since they are good at defending their nests, if necessary. Otherwise, though, this insect has a very gentle nature.”
Like all beekeepers, Evans is passionate about his tiny charges but feels strongly about supporting all bees, not just honey bees, with our gardens. “If all of your plants bloom at the same time, it produces a great amount of honey, but then that’s not good for native species. Supporting honey bees is important, but supporting native species is just as important.”
When Linda Tillman started beekeeping in urban Atlanta, her neighbors had no idea what was happening behind her fence until she presented them with gifts of honey a few years later. A psychotherapist with a busy practice, she was looking for something environmentally satisfying to do in her spare time and found it in her bees. She now spends several hours a week tending 17 hives, 5 of which reside in her tiny back yard. She also writes a popular beekeeping blog, gives talks in schools, coaches “newbees,” and wrangles swarms.
Cities like Chicago and Vancouver are especially good for bees, because they usually have lower pesticide use than agricultural areas in the country and are often rich in parks and urban gardens containing a diversity of blossoms. Honey bees will forage within a 5-square-mile area, with scout worker bees reporting the exact whereabouts of good nectar and pollen flowers to the other bees via the famous “waggle dance,” a marvel of biology that showcases their ability to fix location by the position of the sun.
Street trees and local weeds are also good food sources. Michael Thompson’s top Chicago picks are silver maple, linden, and crabapple trees as well as wild chicory, sweet clover, and white asters. Linda Tillman notes that Atlanta bees produce most of their honey during the heavy nectar flow of native tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera). Graeme Evans has planted a host of honey bee and native bee favorites in his hotel’s expansive herb and bee gardens, including indigenous black elderberries, woodland strawberries, nodding onions, flowering currants, and huckleberries. He has even seeded nectar-rich crimson clover in wild spots near the hotel and notes wryly that his bees adore the flowers of invasive Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), adding that the hotel can harvest 200 pounds of allspice-flavored knotweed honey.
Honey bees, along with native bees, are keystone species, responsible for pollinating many of the world’s food crops; far from being shunned, they deserve every bit of help city dwellers can offer. As Linda Tillman says, “The urban environment contributes so much to the ecological problems of the world. Raising bees is a way of paying back or making up for some of the damage a city is causing. At least we are fostering an insect that is in need of human care.”