These Urban Beekeepers Are Helping Keep Pollinators in Big Cities
It turns out, bees like living in the city, too.
When you think of city wildlife, pigeons and rats probably come to mind—not a thriving colony of bees. Where are the hives among the chaos of taxis and skyscrapers? Where do they drink nectar and feast on pollen within the confines of a concrete jungle?
But it turns out that bees, like humans, can actually thrive in urban areas. Junior Schouten, the head gardener and beekeeper at Brooklyn Grange, manages beehives in more rural parts of New Jersey, as well as on rooftops in New York City. “The bees do much better here in the city than they do out there and I think the reason is that, out in the farmland, there are lots of pesticides being used,” he says. “There is lots of monocropping going into just acres of corn or acres of wheat. And that's not really helpful for bees.”
Bees like a diversity of plants to pick from, and surprisingly enough, big cities have a buffet of different flowers and trees to choose from that bloom throughout the year. “I think people are worried about the pollution getting into the honey,” explains Hilary Kearney, the founder of San Diego-based Girl Next Door Honey. “But there’s plenty of pollution happening in more rural spaces, especially because of agriculture.”
In fact, Kearney believes that urban beekeeping is a tool to bring awareness of the harmful effects of pesticides closer to people, meeting them directly where they live. Urban beekeeping has found its home in backyard hives, skyscraper rooftops, and community gardens. Bee hives don’t require a lot of space and it’s a misconception that bees always swarm (they typically only do that when an old queen is leaving her hive for a new one). “When you start integrating bees closer to our living spaces, people see the impact of what they do more directly,” she says.
While the art of beekeeping is an ancient practice that goes back thousands of years to the Egyptians, the tradition is currently having a renaissance. According to the National Honey Board, there are currently well over 100,000 beekeepers within the United States. And though the average beekeeper is white, male, and over 50, there is a growing movement to diversify the communities that care for and house these bees.
Timothy Paule and Nicole Lindsey, the founders of Detroit Hives, are on a mission to teach the symbiotic benefits of caring for pollinators. Paule and Lindsey don’t have a background in entomology and, prior to 2016, neither of them really ever considered beekeeping as a career. What changed everything was a really nasty cold.
“I tried home remedies, I tried over-the-counter medications, I was placed on antibiotics and that still wasn’t working for me,” Paule explained. He was introduced to local raw honey and its medicinal properties gripped him. He refers to local raw honey as a Swiss army knife: “[It] can help with your allergies or my cough. But it can also serve as a natural band aid for a cut, a burn, or eczema. I never knew a product that could do that.”
Honey became their inspiration. The sweet nectar not only cured Paule’s cold, but it tasted incredible, too. The flavor of honey varies from region to region, depending on what type of flowers and plants honey bees encounter. The essence of those blossoms—whether they be citrus trees or lavender—is imbued into the honey, making each variation unique. Honey made in California will undoubtedly taste different than honey produced on the East Coast, thanks to different climates and native plants.
With honey in mind, the couple looked at all the vacant lots in Detroit as an opportunity to transform their community. Instead of spraying weeds with pesticides, they planted wildflowers.
“When [people] see us, they say, ‘Hey, you don't look like a beekeeper, and you don't look like you went to school or got a background in environmental science,” Paule says. “Sometimes it’s how you talk to people—you can’t tell the people with all these high jargon AP biology terms. You lose a lot of people.”
Instead, Paule and Lindsey find different avenues to gauge interest. One way is through food— the pair commend the greatness of honey-barbecue chicken wings or just a smear of raw honey on toast to get foodies more invested. For fashion and sneaker fans, they’ve built beehives shaped like Nike shoe boxes. For those who are more health conscious, Paule shares his story of healing and also discusses the benefits honey provides against allergens.
"Bees are like a gateway bug."
For Schouten, his entrance to nature came, oddly enough, through Captain Planet. “I wanted to be a planeteer in New York City,” he laughs. “I obviously am an anomaly. I live in the Bronx and I’m going to go out on the limb there and say there’s probably 10 Black beekeepers in the Bronx.” But Schouten has hope that if beekeeping and the importance of conservation are introduced at a young age—like he experienced—more people will care about how bees affect their day-to-day lives.
“When there are different kinds of beekeepers and different people of different colors and [women], that engages like a wider variety of people,” Kearny says. “When you know a beekeeper or you follow a beekeeper on Instagram, it changes your mindset.”
Kearney recognizes that beekeeping might not be for everybody, and that’s okay. There are other things to be done: planting native flowers in your city, whether in your backyard or on your rooftop; learning about bees and the ways in which they support our food systems; and education about the differences between native bees, yellow jackets, and hornets as a way to not fear—or kill—these insects that all have their place in the environment.
“Bees are responsible for 99% of the food population and without [them] I wouldn't have my peppers, my different types of strawberries,” Paule explains. That means your favorite fruits, salsas, salads, cobblers, and more can all be traced back to bees—not to mention the honey you stir into your tea, drizzle on top of biscuits, or bake into cakes. Not only that, but bees are connected to the feed grown for cattle, pigs, and chickens, too, and therefore inextricably linked to meat consumption.
“Bees are like a gateway bug,” Kearney says. “I think of it as a way to get people interested, engaged, and passionate about changing their habits to make space for all of nature. There are little creatures that we could be living in harmony with if we just change a few habits.”