by Robin Quarrier
Urban beekeeping is part of a larger urban back-to-the-land movement that also includes raising chickens and gardening on a larger scale, and is at least in part a response to the environmental costs of factory farming and transporting produce over long distances. San Francisco has many such urban farms, and some of these farms are expanding operations into beekeeping to aid in the pollination of the crops, including Hayes Valley Farm, Finny Farm, and Alemany Farm.
Bees love San Francisco almost as much as I do. There are a number of reasons why San Francisco is ideal for urban beekeeping. San Francisco has a mild climate, and bees can be kept without migration of hives, resulting in less stress on the bees. Tees, shrubs, and many plants flower ten months of the year reducing the need for the bees to stock honey for the winter. Environmental policies and community organizations help also by supporting a healthy environment for bees.
All that said, honeybees are up against strong forces. There is even a bee saboteur in San Francisco. In July 2010, someone intentionally sprayed pesticide at the entrance to three urban hives located at Hayes Valley Farm, two acres of community farm land in what was formerly the central freeway. The saboteur killed about 300,000 bees, costing Hayes Valley Farm roughly $2,000.
Even if you get the consent of your neighbors, sometimes the bees simply fly away. At an urban beehive in Seattle, the bees decided to upgrade to a sweet gum maple tree in the next-door neighbor’s yard and the local Master Beekeeper had to be called to bring the bees home. First he took one of the racks out of the original hive and brought it over to the new congregation, in hopes that the bees would be reminded of home sweet home and would miss the smell of familiar wax. Ideally, some bees would either remember the hive, or see it as a new and better option than the fixer-upper sweet gum tree. These bees would perform the waggle dance and lure the rest of the hive to repopulate the hive in a couple of days. In this case the bees did not want to go home, or alternatively, the bees that rediscovered the old hive were not particularly good at the waggle dance.
Even the hives that are not tormented by vandals, or tempted away from their hives by sweet gum maples are at risk. My uncle had a hive on his farm in Acworth, New Hampshire. Eight years ago, many of the nearby hives collapsed and he began taking preventative steps to protect his hive from parasitic bee mites. He had success for many years leaving menthol cough drops around the hive (though the bees might have preferred honey lemon flavor).
Cough drops alone might not suffice to save the bees. In 2007, 30–70 percent of the hives of the European honeybee (the primary bee kept by humans, used for pollination and honey purposes) died off, a phenomena called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Most of the current research indicates that there are combinations of factors that cause CCD, including weather conditions and parasitic bee mites. In the 1980s, two non-native species of parasitic mite infested North American honeybees. One of the species, Varroa destructor, has proven especially fatal. Another prominent factor is Israel acute paralysis virus, which impacts protein production within the cells.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), there are a number of crops that won’t grow without the help of honey bees, including apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, carrots, avocados, and almonds. NRDC estimates a potential loss of $15 billion worth of crops if honeybees were to become extinct.
What can we do to help the bees? One idea is to get involved with ecosystem rehabilitation and development projects. These projects can provide pollen and nectar sources needed to sustain healthy populations of bees. Backyard gardens including a diversity of densely packed bee-friendly flowers are helpful in providing nectar and pollen for urban foragers. Purchasing pesticide-free produce can also help incentivize bee-friendly growing practices. Or, if you really want to get involved you can don a beekeepers suit and start a backyard hive yourself.
Robin Quarrier is in-house counsel at CRS and an avid backyardist. She can be reached at robin [at] resource-solutions.org.