All About the Urban Beekeeping Trend

The practice of beekeeping dates back more than 6,000 years, as early civilizations discovered the benefits of honey bees for honey production and for their role in the pollination and growth of many fruits, vegetables and other crops. However, U.S. beekeeping’s history is much younger, beginning in 1622 when English settlers brought honey bee colonies to the American colony of Virginia.

When beekeeping comes to mind today, many think of commercial beekeepers, who often maintain more than 300 colonies, offer pollination services to growers and produce about 60 percent of the nation’s annual honey supply. Smaller-scale hobbyist beekeepers, on the other hand, typically keep one to 10 colonies as a pastime and use their hives to pollinate their own or neighboring gardens, as well as to produce and sell small amounts of honey. Recently, a new sector within hobbyist beekeeping has emerged and gained popularity in major cities around the world: urban beekeeping.

Urban beekeepers at MacEwan University in Alberta, Canada tending to rooftop hives

Urban beekeepers at MacEwan University in Alberta, Canada tending to rooftop hives

Whether to produce distinct regional honey varietals, inspire new urban beekeepers or pollinate urban farms, urban beekeepers are jumping on the trend for a range of motives. With the lack of open spaces in cities, they’re also getting creative by establishing many hives on open rooftops. From Detroit to D.C. to Atlanta, check out what’s happening in urban beekeeping across the country:

Detroit

Nonprofit Detroit Hives is making Detroit a better place to “bee,” one urban bee farm at a time. The group founded with the mission to protect local honey bee health, spread awareness of bees and drive economic mobility. Its founders “believe a healthy future for bees reflects a healthy future for humanity. The health of those in our inner-cities, specifically people of color, is often the last to be considered – it’s our mission to change this.” Detroit Hives accomplishes this mission by transforming vacant Detroit lots into urban bee farms, revitalizing neighborhoods and creating cultural, educational experiences for kids and other community members. It gets even better: through partnerships with urban farms, Detroit Hives places bees at gardens to pollinate fruits and vegetables, and all fresh produce goes straight back to the community. Through a Bayer Feed a Bee grant in 2018, Detroit Hives installed pollinator habitats around its bee farms, which provide forage for honey bees and further education for the community.

Before and after shots of an urban space transformed into a community apiary by Detroit Hives

Before and after shots of an urban space transformed into a community apiary by Detroit Hives

Washington D.C.

D.C. has become a mecca for urban beekeeping since the Sustainable D.C. Act of 2012, which “specifically allows the keeping of honey bees as part of a broader effort to add 20 acres of cultivated land for growing food in the city by 2032.” Many D.C. beekeepers tend hives that pollinate the Green Roof, the 40,000-square-foot rooftop urban garden oasis at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), which grows bee-pollinated crops including strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and peaches. The Green Roof is managed by Sandy Farber Bandier, a Feed a Bee Steering Committee member and coordinator of the UDC Master Gardener program. In 2015, Sandy led the charge in enhancing the garden’s productivity by installing a pollinator garden, supported by a grant from Bayer, filled with native plants that feed bees and butterflies. Area bees have since made a beeline to the Green Roof as a reliable source of nectar, which benefits both bee health and the quality of honey that local beekeepers are producing.

Atlanta

Located in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, Doc’s Healing Hives and Honey, Inc. maintains a bee apiary, an instructional pollinator garden and bee forage patches to raise donated honey bees for veterans. The nonprofit exists to help veterans heal from the emotional trauma of combat and reintegrate into the community through beekeeping and gardening, types of “eco-therapy.” Supported by certified beekeeper and Master Gardener volunteers, Doc’s is working to create a unique beekeeping association that provides veterans with honey bees, beehives, equipment and training to start their own apiaries (locations where beehives are kept). According to executive director Tim Doherty, many new beekeepers neglect to plant forage areas for their apiaries, and colonies often suffer from starvation as a result. Therefore, teaching veterans how to create apiaries that include pollinator-attracting plant species for bee forage is an integral component of the project. “We believe that beekeeping and gardening provides veterans a sense of purpose, a viable vocation and therapeutic benefits,” Tim said.

Philadelphia

Beekeeping is a rising trend in cities like Philadelphia due in part to thousands of abandoned lots, where native plants and vegetation supply natural bee forage. Both hobbyist and commercial beekeepers, including Don Shump of Philadelphia Bee Company, maintain hives in backyards, rooftops or gardens. Don quit his job as a web developer to become a full-time beekeeper in 2011, and in 2015 he produced more than 1,000 pounds of honey – a wildly successful bounty for an urban beekeeper! According to Don, bees love the weeds growing in many of these lots and are producing “really interesting and complex honeys” as a result. Don manages about 65 hives in 15 rooftop locations around the city, supplying honey to several local businesses. His bees on the roof of Shane Confectionary, one of the oldest candy stores in the country, produce the honey sold in the store, as well as the honey infused into the honeycomb ice cream next door at The Franklin Fountain. Another Philly beekeeper raising bees (for scientific reasons) is Suzanne Matlock, who began keeping hives on the front lawn of her home after learning about losses of 30 to 90 percent among some colonies. Suzanne works to prolong the life of her bees, including breeding bees that can better survive the cold Philadelphia winters.

Overall, the general population of beekeepers continues to decline, as more and more beekeepers retire. With so many challenges facing bees, including the deadly parasite, the Varroa mite and devastating diseases, such as American foulbrood (AFB), it’s essential for younger beekeepers to fill the empty shoes (or beekeeping suits!) of retiring beekeepers. We’ll need all types of beekeepers – commercial and hobbyist – to continue caring for these creatures that provide such essential pollination services. Thankfully, the growing trend of urban beekeeping may inspire a new generation of beekeepers to take up the reins.

Wondering if urban beekeeping is feasible for you? Learn more here.

Always wanted your own hive and wondering how to get started? Find out how here.