Beekeeping is Taking Off Everywhere – from Suburban Backyards to Manhattan Rooftops
As I prepare to open the lid of the beehive, I take a moment to control my breathing.
It’s a hot day at the height of summer, and bees can be particularly active at such times. Since honeybees are able to smell and then target the CO2 that we exhale via receptors in their antenna, keeping my breathing calm and steady helps minimize the disruptiveness of these routine inspections, so the bees stay focused on their work and pay less attention to me. When I’m ready, I gingerly remove the lid and uncover a busy world alive with fragrance, color, textures, and sound – so familiar, and yet always so mesmerizing to me.
A cloud of sweet-smelling pollen, nectar, and honey sighs out and up. The rich, sticky, rusty-red-and-brown propolis is everywhere, as is dark-amber-colored aged wax, and pure-white new wax. A soft whir like an engine idling rises up to greet me – the bees go on alert as they respond to the intrusion – but they stay relatively calm for now. One by one, I gently pry free the individual frames containing the honeycombs, lift them out, and carefully hold each up against the sun to examine the perfectly crafted hexagonal cells. Methodically inspecting to check on hive health, space needs, eggs, larvae, nectar, and honey stores is a contract between beekeeper and colony. Beekeepers are responsible for being good stewards to our bees, and the bees, in turn, owe us nothing. Beekeeping is often a lesson in humility and awe.
A Swarming Trend
Beekeeping has undergone a remarkable renaissance in recent years. No longer confined to rural areas, beekeepers now can be found in suburban backyards, and even on the rooftops and balconies of densely populated cities, helped along by municipalities removing antiquated laws that have prohibited beekeeping in cities. New York City ended its ban on the practice in 2010 and has since registered more than 400 hives. Local beekeeping groups are forming around the country and continuing to add new members. This surge in interest is helping to promote pollination within communities, as well as bolstering honeybee populations, which have suffered drastically in recent decades. Bees have been facing what scientists call a “perfect storm” of chemical and biological threats, leading to significant honeybee decline, and researchers continue to find new factors contributing to the crisis. Honeybees have benefited from this heightened awareness, as more attention is focused on the vital role bees play in food production.
Subaru partner Greensgrow, an urban farm located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, offers classes in beekeeping so you can learn how to “bee.”
Beekeeper holding tools of the trade, a smoker and hive tool. Photo: Daniel Grill / Tetra / Glow Image
Enter the Modern Beekeepers
“The interest in backyard beekeeping has really exploded,” says Bill Catherall, president of Portland Urban Beekeepers in Oregon. “I imagine, and I hope, this is just the beginning. Beekeeping and gardening go hand in hand. Both are seeing a big boom as more people want to take charge of their own food source.”
They say the bees choose you, and that’s what happened to my husband, Rob, and me. One day a swarm of honeybees landed in our garden and we were instantly swept into the world of beekeeping. We joined a local group of beekeepers called the ‘Backwards Beekeepers’ and started to learn everything we could by any means we could: books, YouTube videos, and mentoring with other local ‘beeks’. Now we have three bee yards – a second one in Los Angeles and a third in Washington state outside of Spokane – around 50 hives total.
I started with one hive. I started by buying woodenware locally, got on the swarm list, and ‘caught’ my first bees swarming on a low-hanging branch. I shook the bees into the box and stood in awe as they all regrouped into the box. The sun set, I put screen and duct tape over the entrance, drove the hive home, and put them in my backyard. I was HOOKED!
Beekeeping is a very rewarding and relaxing hobby. Most communities have local bee associations. These clubs provide a wealth of knowledge for any new apiarist looking to start their first hives.
The Learning Curve of Beekeeping
While the thrill of a first taste of beekeeping is certainly intoxicating – from sighting and catching a wild swarm, to carefully driving home from the post office with a mail-order package of live bees – there is definitely a learning curve to the practice. As with the responsible raising of any creature, it’s primarily about communication. “I think the biggest lesson we learn early on is that we really aren’t in control. Beekeeping is less about manipulation and more about learning to read the seasons, the bloom, and how all this affects the bees. Then our job is about anticipating the needs of the bees, how to time things right, and use their natural behavior to our advantage,” says Catherall. “The learning curve isn’t too steep; it’s constant though, and that’s what I love about it. I’ve spoken with people who have 40 years of experience and they agree. The bees are the best teachers; you just have to listen carefully.”
Photo: The Good Brigade / Offset.com