Urban Beekeeping: Cities are Better with Bees

For centuries, humans have fostered a relationship with honeybees that is now integral to our way of life, providing food and medicine for our families. As the world population continues to grow and urban areas dominate the landscape, maintaining a balanced relationship with bees and the environment will be more important than ever. The United Nations reports that in 2017, 54% of the world’s population, almost four billion people, reside in urban areas. The U.N. projects that 56% of the world’s population will reside in urban areas by 2020, and 58% percent by 2025.

It may surprise you to learn that rural bees aren’t necessarily healthier or better off than urban bees. Urban bees have a winter survival rate of 62.5%, compared to just 40 % for rural bees. Urban bees also produce, on average, almost twice as much honey in their first year as their rural counterparts.

Over the past decade, bee populations have drastically declined due to colony collapse disorder (CCD). Researchers have been unable to identify a single cause, but a class of insecticides called neonicintinoids has been linked to bee disappearances around the country. Modern monoculture farming exposes rural bees to less diverse plant types and more of these harmful pesticides. Urban bees have access to a greater diversity of food and are not exposed to harsh chemicals used in agriculture.

Many assume that moving away from rural areas means sacrificing our relationship with bees, but this isn’t the case! Urban beekeeping has the potential to not only support healthy bee populations, but also support healthy urban communities.

Buildings for Bees

To design more sustainable buildings, architects are creatively integrating green space into our cities as green roofs. A green roof is a layer of vegetation planted over a waterproofed roof. Urban beekeepers are partnering with businesses to make use of rooftops and other precious open spaces in urban environments. Bee hives of all shapes and sizes are hidden on rooftops and integrated into buildings to support the pollination and growth of these green roofs.

3 Bee Friendly Buildings:

  • The imposing brutalist buildings at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood are an iconic part of New York City’s urban landscape. But when you look at FIT from above, a greener picture emerges. 1 1/3 acres of greenery and green roof have been installed on the roofs of several FIT building. To create FIT’s green roofs, lush flowering sedum plants, which are hardy succulents that require little watering or maintenance, were installed on the roof in large trays. Colonies of Italian bees have found high-rise accommodations on the green roof, where they are tended to by beekeeper-students from FIT and The Honeybee Conservancy.
  • In Detroit, Michigan, a local organization called Bees in the D worked with the Cobo Center to install honey bee hives to support the building’s 10,000 square-foot living green roof. Honey harvested from the hives is used in the Cobo kitchens.
  • Since 2012, the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel’s roof in Boston, Massachusetts has been home to over 100,000 honey bees and mason bees. Honey bee hives and mason bee hotels, habitats specialized for solitary bees like mason bees, were installed to support the hotel’s Oak Long Bar + Kitchen. Honey bees provide honey and mason bees diligently pollinate flowers and herbs throughout the garden.

Spaces like this not only create natural habitat for birds and insects, but also provide insulation to cool and heat the building. Paved, dark surfaces in cities absorb tremendous amounts of solar radiation and re-radiate it as heat, which increases the local air temperature. During the summer months in New York City, the daily minimum temperature is approximately 7 degrees warmer than surrounding rural areas. Green space not only covers dark roofing surfaces but also lowers the temperature on the roof as plants absorb solar radiation to evaporate water. These extra temperature controls will become crucial for both humans and wildlife in cities as the population density grows and the climate continues to change.

Combating Food Deserts

Despite living in urban areas, more than 2.3 million Americans live in a “food desert,” a low-income area that has limited or no access to affordable and nutritious foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet. New York City has led the charge with 700 urban farms and gardens spread throughout its five boroughs, many of which provide access to healthy produce for local residents and home to local wildlife including NYC bees. Urban beekeeping is a crucial component to any local food initiative; if you want local food, you need local bees. When bees are added to gardens and urban farms, food quality improves and yield increases by up to +71%.

See how it works!

  1. Most of East Oakland, California is considered a food desert by the USDA with only two grocery stores within three miles, providing limited access to fresh produce. Honeybee Conservancy partner Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project’s quarter-acre organic farm, located in East Oakland, is planned, planted, and harvested year-round by children in grades K-8. The students also sell the farm produce to local residents.
  2. Honeybee Conservancy’s bee hive recipient and partner Eastern Connecticut Community Gardens Association has transformed two abandoned lots into a Giving Garden at Coogan Farm in Mystic, Connecticut. The Garden has already raised 3,500 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables for the region’s hungry families, and reached 22,000 people with a free, nutritious, and GMO-free food. Food is donated to the Gemma Moran Food Center in New London which then distributes the food to food pantries, soup kitchens, senior citizen centers, preschools, veteran centers, and a myriad of other social service organizations.

Honeybees for a Healthy Community

Efforts to increase bee populations and pollinate healthy food are also benefiting our communities. In 2005, author Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his book, Last Child in the Woods. This describes an ever-growing separation from nature as children and adults spend much of their time indoors or away from green space. More and more people are demanding green space like parks and gardens in their communities, but how will they thrive without pollinators? By embracing urban beekeeping, we can have both the conveniences of city living with the health and beauty of the country side.

Community garden projects like those in East Oakland and Mystic Connecticut are getting people outside and teaching them where their food comes from. The Green Corps by Cleveland Botanical Garden employs and educates local teenagers to work at one of their “urban learning farms” to develop life, work, and leadership skills, while also providing healthy, fresh food to their communities. Many bee programs, like the Honeybee Conservancy’s Sponsor-a-Hive program, empower new urban beekeepers with the tools and supplies they need to be successful, but also require education and outreach to share the value of bees with others. Urban youth can now appreciate nature, spend time outdoors, and make new friends, all thanks to bees!

Get involved:

  1. Urban beekeeping is only permitted in certain cities, so be sure to check with your state apiarist (one who keeps bees) to see if farming is legal in your area before becoming an urban beekeeper.
  2. Look up community gardens or organizations nearby that are supporting urban beekeeping and are looking for volunteers.
  3. You or your business can help declining populations of honeybees by making a donation, sponsoring a hive, or contacting your local urban beekeepers.
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