By Emily Hughes
BU News Service
She arrives encased in a small wooden box about the size of a matchbook. It takes her three days to chew through the sugary plug that replaces the box’s sixth wall. She twists through the opening and suddenly breaks free. This moment is always the most tense for beekeepers. If the queen releases herself too quickly, the other bees may not yet recognize her scent. If she takes too long, the hive could fall into disorder and starve. The world of beekeeping is full of moments like this: delicate and breathtaking, maddening and gratifying.
Beekeeping is nothing new, but a recent increase in urban beekeeping has shifted the focus from traditionally rural settings. The trend started in the early 2000s, at a time when bee populations were struggling. Scientists and policy-makers alike fostered a growing concern for global pollinator population decline. One by one, major cities answered with a new kind of apiary practice – urban beekeeping. Boston legalized beekeeping in 2014 and local citizens were quick to join in. Interest in the hobby is growing quickly, bringing some unexpected benefits to the Boston community.
Boston citizens ranging from experienced hobbyists to complete novices find parks or backyards suitable for housing traditional Langstroth hives – wooden boxes containing vertically hung sheets of honeycomb. Educational facilities like the Museum of Science use an observation hive model with glass sides for viewing access. Even Boston’s commercial businesses have started keeping bees – The Charles Hotel, Taj Boston, Atlantic Wharf, Prudential Center and Harvard Business School all host beehives on their roofs.
Although there is no comprehensive data tracking the number of Boston hives, groups that maintain bees throughout the area have noticed a major increase in hive numbers over the past few years. Best Bees, a company that helps residential and commercial clients establish and maintain their own beehives, has worked with citizens in the Boston area since 2010. When Boston first legalized beekeeping, the company saw a huge spike in customer numbers. That year their company grew by over one hundred hives. Today, Best Bees maintains 822 honey bee hives throughout the greater Boston area. “Beekeeping is the new hot thing,” said Kim Skyrm, Chief Apiary Inspector for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
Urban beekeeping has provided some major benefits for citizens in the Boston area. Locally sourced honey is more common in urban markets than it was before 2010. Honey bees themselves possess a number of social, behavioral and biological features that make them beneficial study subjects for research scientists and curious preschoolers alike. Science-based companies like Best Bees use urban beehives to research subjects as diverse as Alzheimer’s disease, architecture and sociology.
Outside the lab, Boston teachers are using honey bee apiaries for classroom education. A few years ago Lauryn Cannon, a preschool teacher at Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center in Mattapan, worked with members of the Boston Area Beekeepers Association and Classroom Hives to set up a small observation hive for her students. The educators at the Center keep bees inside a classroom sandwiched between two glass panes, with a tube running through the wall to give the worker bees access to outdoor nectar and pollen. Cannon says she tries to incorporate the bees into her curriculum. “We frequently use the hive when we’re talking about families and when we talk about homes,” Cannon said. “When we talk about shapes sometimes we’ll come in and look at the hexagons in the beehives. They’re a great learning tool.”
First and foremost, though, Boston’s urban honey bees are pollinators. Despite declining population numbers, pollinators continue to play a crucial role in agricultural practices worldwide. Products like onions, carrots, apples and almonds are entirely dependent on pollinators like the honey bee. “It is estimated that two thirds of the food we eat involves pollination by bees in some way,” said UMass Amherst microbiology professor John Burand. “Without bees, we would not be able to feed the world’s population.” Bees pollinate more than $15 billion worth of crops per year in the United States, including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa and almonds, according to a 2011 report from the Natural Resource Defense Counsel. A pollination study from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Science Advisor Gabriela Chavarria puts the annual global cost of bee decline at $5.7 billion per year.
In Boston, bees from hotel rooftop hives help pollinate flowers in the Boston Public Garden; residential beehives from Roslindale and Jamaica Plain collect pollen from the fruit trees in the Arnold Arboretum; and bees from Fenway Park hives pollinate the wealth of fruits and vegetables in the Fenway Victory Gardens.
As new hives spread across cities like Boston, honey bee researchers are making the counter intuitive discovery that urban bees are actually healthier than their rural counterparts. Hives in Cambridge and Boston have a higher honey productivity rate than rural bees, producing about 30% more honey. City bees are also more likely to survive the winter. Scientists are still speculating why urban bees show increased resilience and productivity – perhaps their success is due to less pesticide use, more varied diets and an urban heat-island effect that keeps bees warmer during cold winter months.
Despite the benefits urban hives offer, urban beekeeping can be difficult. The hobby is expensive, takes a significant amount of time and, without the necessary diligence, urban hives become a threat to neighboring bees. “If not maintained properly, these hives could fall victim to diseases, making them a source of pathogens for bees in the surrounding area,” Burand said. The close proximity of hives fostered by a city environment can exacerbate this domino effect, making urban bees more vulnerable to citywide infections.
Preventing influx of disease or pests is a constant concern for all beekeepers, not just beginners. The threats, which fluctuate with every season, range from fungal infections to parasitic varroa mites, and can wipe out a hive overnight.
Burand warned that the average beekeeper loses about one-quarter of their hives every year. To replace lost bees, beekeepers will usually split the surviving hives and stock them with a new queen. These new queens cost beekeepers about $25 each, and a new package of bees runs about $125 per hive. This can add up quickly for beekeepers and could be a source of discouragement for city residents interested in starting a hive.
Urban beekeeping can also lead to concerns for surrounding neighbors, who often misinterpret healthy hive behavior as a threat to their safety. Perhaps the most frightening behavior is swarming, in which a growing hive decides to split in half and build a new colony elsewhere. Moving as a single swarm, the bees leave the hive and settle in one place (usually a tree branch, occasionally a car tire) for a few days until they find a new home. These swarms are not aggressive, but can be shocking to non-beekeepers. Sam Jennings, Deck Chief at Best Bees, said the company occasionally assists in swarm relocation, in one instance removing a swarm from a jet engine at Logan airport so the plane could take off on time.
Urban beekeeping’s popularity has encouraged new resources for local beekeepers. For a fee, companies like Best Bees or the Boston-based group Classroom Hives will assemble a hive and then work with their customer to maintain the bee colony. These groups will also monitor the health of the hive and prevent swarming events in urban areas. The Boston Area Beekeepers Association hosts workshops on topics like swarming and overwintering, invites guest speakers for beekeeping events and provides an online forum focused on the local beekeeping community. Boston Area Beekeepers Association will also set up novice beekeepers with a more experienced “beekeeping mentor,” a partnership designed to help new beekeepers through the difficult first few seasons.
Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources also provides beekeeping resources for Massachusetts residents. Their beehive registration process is voluntary, but allows the state to contact registered beekeepers if contagious pests have taken over a nearby hive. The program also offers voluntary inspections, which are designed to reinforce regulations and educate learning beekeepers. The Department of Agricultural Resources also offers lab tests for beekeepers concerned about any number of pests, infections or diseases. State inspectors like Skyrm will collect samples during inspection and send them out to one of several partner bee labs; if the results are negative, Agricultural Resources employees can offer possible treatment methods. The entire process is voluntary and free and can help beekeepers prevent the loss of a hive or the spread of disease. “If you need help,” Skyrm said, “there’s a resource out there for you.”