Beekeepers in the City

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A honeybee collects pollen from a cherry blossom.
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Apiarists advise caution around honeybees.
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Up close and personal with a honeycomb. Hawlan
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Alex Grelli watches as members of Burgh Bees remove honeycombs.

With the towering buildings of a city skyline as a backdrop, honeybees seek nectar and gather pollen from flowers growing in apartment gardens and parks – in wealthy areas as well as poor city neighborhoods. When loaded with sustaining cargo, they return to their Pittsburgh hives. These honeybees didn’t seek out an urban lifestyle, but they’ve successfully made the transition, with a little help from an organization known as Burgh Bees.

Apiarists Alex and Meredith Grelli, Jennifer Wood, and Robert Steffes organized Burgh Bees to bring the pleasure of beekeeping to the urban environment.

“Alex and I moved from Chicago to a ‘yardless’ house in Pittsburgh in 2006. We wanted so badly to keep bees in Pittsburgh and tried to jury-rig all kinds of solutions for our townhouse but were met with a whole host of issues,” Meredith says. “Our house is sandwiched between our neighbors’ with about two feet of space between them. We thought of trying (to have a beehive) on our roof, but ultimately decided it didn’t seem safe.

“That’s when we got ahold of Jennifer Wood and Robert Steffes, who’ve been telling people around town about bees for some time, and we asked if they wanted to team up on this initiative. Despite having 35 acres and a dozen hives of their own, they jumped at the chance of getting urbanites involved.”

Since organizing in 2006, Burgh Bees has established 14 hives, including four small demonstration apiaries in neighborhoods around the city and one at the Pittsburgh Zoo. The demonstration apiaries offer students the opportunity to experience an intensive beekeeper training program sponsored by Burgh Bees. Alex Grelli believes the classes are important to help urban beekeeping grow.

“We hold classes about twice a month. Our ‘intensive beekeeper training program’ involves 10 sessions from April to November,” Alex says. “In addition to those sessions, we also invite class and community members out to the hives on a weekly basis when we check them outside of scheduled classes.”

Folks not taking classes are also offered the opportunity to view the hives each month when they are opened for virtually any interested parties. These hives also enable members of the community to get hands-on beekeeping experience without the need to maintain a hive of their own. One of Burgh Bees’ long-term goals is to develop a group of beekeepers who can maintain a hive where they live or at a community apiary.

Many apiarists believe that an urban environment may be more beneficial to the health of honeybees than the rural environment. This is due in part to the widespread use of pesticides and agricultural monoculture in rural settings compared with the wide variety of plant life found in a city. Urban apiarists believe that plant diversity is important for maintaining a healthy bee immune system.

“Anyone living in an urban area has to know that some communities have laws about bees. They’d want to keep gentle bees in their hives, and remember that it’s important to place a hive where it’s secluded and there is plenty of open space,” says Pennsylvania Beekeepers Association President Lee Miller. “Bees can fly straight up 17 feet, so it’s important they have a clear path.”

Hazelwood, a community located within the city of Pittsburgh, is home to longtime resident Barb Williams, who started a community garden called Hazelwood Harvest. When approached by Burgh Bees about a honeybee hive near the garden, she recognized  many potential benefits.

“I invited Burgh Bees down to take a look at the garden, and they were impressed by what they saw,” Barb says. “We agreed they could talk to the board of directors from Hazelwood Harvest about putting in a hive. The board considered it a good spot. We had fruit trees and a lot of personal gardens that needed the pollination. It was a win-win situation.”

With the hive in place for two and a half months, there have been few issues other than some casual concern about bee behavior – especially stings. “The experience has been a real positive one,” Barb says.

The efforts of Burgh Bees to increase interest and awareness of honeybees around the city seem to be meeting with success. At present, 35 people are signed up for the yearlong class, and the number of active Burgh Bee volunteers is in the hundreds. Many of the current class participants have expressed an interest in starting a hive of their own.

Check your area for organizations that help establish honeybee hives within cities.

The increasing success and interest in honeybees that is occurring in the urban world could change its entire landscape. In the future, honeybee hives may become as common of a sight in many cities as its squirrels and pigeons.

J. Michael Krivyanski is a freelance writer and syndicated columnist from Allison Park, Pennsylvania.