Wings and Wheels

Bob Redmond speaking at the WSBA Conference 2012

Bob Redmond speaking at the WSBA Conference 2012

By Bob Redmond, Urban Bee Company

As cities are the hubs of so much consumption, and thus the end point of much of our food system, one must wonder whether they can be more efficient — not just as consumers but also as producers.

And since bees are not only an integral part of the food system, but also as examples of communication and transportation systems, beekeepers need to know about our own role in understanding this and offering lessons from the hive to others.

So the goal of this presentation is to connect the work of bees — moving pollen and honey with maximum efficiency and sustainability — to the work of humans, and specifically city-dwelling humans: how can we make our food system better?

The history of beekeeping has always been among concentrations of people. In fact, to the extent that cities had been invented, beekeeping (as opposed to honey-hunting) coincided with them. The earliest record of beekeeping is from Egypt in 2400 BC, and includes documentation of bees in commerce and cities around the Nile Delta. Even migratory beekeeping had its start there as beekeepers would float hives up and down the river.

In the Hittite kingdom in 1500 BC (current-day Turkey), cities created laws to regulate beekeeping. Babylon — at 200,000 people, the largest city in the world in 1400 BC — had beekeeping. Suhu, another Mesopotamian city (on the current border of Syria and Iraq), helped establish bee populations in 750 BC when the climate otherwise would not support them. Because of the shade and managed water in the city, honeybees could survive there. Around the time of Christ on the eastern Mediterranean, hives were both leased and kept in villages.

Bees were always near crops, and crops were always near people. People didn’t transport food hundreds and thousands of miles (yet). All the way through the Dark and Middle ages, in every village and town, integral to the mundane and spiritual life of all peoples, bees were always present.

Then something happened…

Starting in the mid 1800’s, people figured out how to burn things better: steam power, internal combustion, and eventually, nuclear fission all help us use massive amounts of energy to get things out of the earth and move them around. Compare this with the bee’s impact moving pollen between plants… the flowering plant population exploded! And so did the world population when humans set themselves in motion. To the extent cities had been invented, bees were there—but after 5,000 years of humans in cities, “city” took on a whole new meaning.

In 1803, the world population was 1 billion. It had taken humans 100,000 years to get to that point in population. In the next 200 years, we increased that 6 times. (Facebook, in only 8 years, has gained 1 billion users!) In the next 30 years (by the year 2030), the planet will have added 2 more billion people, to total 8 billion humans.

When this “burning better”—also known as the Industrial Age—happened, agriculture moved out of cities. The Boston Common ended animal grazing in 1830, after 200 years of custom. Other cities banished agriculture and bees from their environs. Beehives—during Bee Fever in the late 1860s and 70s—took hold in California, not to live near people but to pollinate larger and larger farms.

After World War II, with mass changes to the food industry and the introduction of grocery stores, huge distribution networks—and not coincidentally, the Bobcat forklift—the true separation of people from food and food from cities was complete.

This separation is only possible because of how we transport food: from places with no people to places with people. We burn things better, and in doing so, we move our stuff around. We figured out how to put food production in one place—vast sections of land where no one lives and fields are measured by hundreds of square miles—and concentrate consumers elsewhere. But we’re totally dependent on the fossil fuel industry to do so. As we will see, this burning of everything is a recipe for disaster.

And on the brink of this disaster, in our very own day and age, another thing happened….

In the past 10 years, the pendulum has begun to swing back again. In the wake of the organic and natural food movement, “food pioneers” from Majora Carter in the Bronx to Will Allen in Minneapolis to Novella Carpenter in Oakland, and many others—started to bring food and farming back to the city. And with that has come Urban Beekeeping. So we have come full circle back to Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Hittite Kingdom: bees where people live and grow food.

I. Urban Beginnings

The history of beekeeping has always been among concentrations of people. In fact, to the extent that cities had been invented, beekeeping (as opposed to honey-hunting) coincided with them. The earliest record of beekeeping is from Egypt in 2400 BC, and includes documentation of bees in commerce and cities around the Nile Delta. Even migratory beekeeping had its start there as beekeepers would float hives up and down the river.

Now beekeeping has been embraced in cities across the planet: in Paris (which has always loved bees), London (whose government created a £1 million program to support beekeeping), to New York City (which legalized beekeeping in 2010), all across the US. Washington DC, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minneapolis, Denver, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Los Angeles (where beekeeping technically is still illegal), to Portland Oregon and Seattle — all have beekeepers’ associations and groups. The number of hives is doubling every year in a movement that has some wondering if the cities can sustain the practice. Others suggest it’s a necessity.

Are we returning to the times of the great cities of Egypt, which integrated urban life, agriculture, and beekeeping — and for whom honey was a gateway to communicating with the gods? Or are we like Babylon of ancient times, which built a tower to reach the heavens, only to be confounded when God ruined their language, leaving them demoralized, scattered and lost, their city in ruins?

II. The hive of the city, the city of the hive

There are numerous bad reasons people keep bees in the city, among them possibly that one could reach some kind of heavenly communion. “To save the bees” is a common refrain, even though many beekeepers have no idea of how this might happen, let alone how to properly manage their hives. They lose them to swarms or neglect, or declare that the best thing to do is absolutely nothing. Within two seasons their bees will be dead.

But by now everyone knows “the bees are in trouble,” and either knows a beekeeper, or has tried beekeeping themselves. They desire to do something, and the keeping of bees seems like something to do. Moreover, it’s hip and fashionable. Neighbors or parents will be fascinated. Beekeeping is cheaper than a midlife-crisis sports car (barely). “I’m a beekeeper” is a great line in a singles bar.

Williams-Sonoma recently launched its own urban bee gear, complete with a $500 top-bar beehive. Philips proposed an indoor living-room hive one could operate in a camisole (model not included). An artist in Seattle disrupts colonies by putting doll-house furniture inside the hive and letting the bees try to build manageable comb. Not to be ignored are the big chemical companies who on one hand create dangerous pesticides, and on the other trumpet “save the bee” marketing initiatives. Beekeeping is cool. Which is a terrible reason to promote keeping bees.

On the other hand, there are good reasons people in cities are working bees again. Indeed, “to save the bees” is no idle chatter for many community gardeners, city planners, students, or just regular people who want something good to eat — or something that won’t kill them.

After 150 years of the Industrial Revolution, the chickens of industry are coming home to roost, and the picture is not very pretty. What the industry provides is not “food” as much as a processed ‘thing’ that resembles food but is not sustenance. Plus we’re getting some nasty side effects: cancer, immune disorders, neurological disease. And the soil is being destroyed. So is the water, and so is the air. Our human colony is collapsing!

There are people who want to stop this, and we know a few things… If we grow the food ourselves, we know what’s going into it. If we grow food where we live, it saves time and energy. And if we grow food, we need bees.

Strange as it may seem, cities are great places to cultivate this practice of healthy agriculture — and beekeeping. As in the Mesopotamian city of Suhu, urban beekeeping can support healthy agriculture and commerce by providing some things that the rural areas cannot. Like Suhu in 750 BC, today’s city can actually have a more diverse ecosystem than many rural places — more kinds of forage, better forage, and clean water.

In the rural land northwest of Seattle there just isn’t anything for the bees to eat after August, because there’s no forage after blackberry. In Eastern Washington, hundreds and hundreds of acres of grass or off-season orchards just don’t offer anything to the bees. The landscape appears pastoral as far as the eye can see, but bees don’t eat wheat and once it’s cut, there’s simply nothing, just a windy plain with nary a house anymore.

In the city, meanwhile, the bees eat well seven months out of the year, if not on invasive perennials (like blackberry and knotweed) then on maples lining avenues and on the thousands of backyard gardens and thou- sands of acres of parkland. This diverse diet supports healthy bees that do not succumb as easily to disease or parasites. Seattle also has more organic land, both public and private, than many rural communities, where the forage runs from neonicitinoid-laced crops to fields and crops that are regularly sprayed.

Another thing cities have in plenty is people, which makes them a great place for discovery and dialogue. The sociologist Jonah Lehrer calls cities “knowledge engines” — a petrie dish where lots of people share ideas. Beekeepers, by their nature experimenters and tinkerers, find a ready audience in cities beyond what the internet can offer. Groups of beekeepers gather, visit each others’ yards, try new methods with Warré and top bar hives, integrated pest management, and other practices easy to try on a small scale.

These beekeepers manage their swarms, make sure their hives get water (and not from the neighbors pool), and minimize factors to control mites, nosema, and other maladies of the hive. They communicate with the neighbors and each other about what nectar is flowing, who has an extra swarm box or how to raise local queens.

This issue contains Parts I & II of Bob’s presentation. We viewed it as of sufficient value to run in its entirety. Look for more next issue. (Editor)


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