Ecocentric

Can Urban Beekeeping Stop the Beepocalypse?

Los Angeles is ready to make urban beekeeping legal, just as colony collapse disorder is ravaging commercial bee populations

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Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Urban beekeeping is already a hit in New York

I’m just going to say it: Los Angeles is abuzz over urban beekeeping. For years the city has had a thriving underground beekeeping culture, with hives kept in backyards by Los Angelenos who want their honey extra local. It’s part of a national trend that has even luxury hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria in New York keeping bees on city roofs or in tiny urban backyards. But while Los Angeles is ideal for amateur apiaries—bees, like people, are drawn to southern California’s warm climate and plentiful forage—keeping bees in residential areas of the city has been illegal, as it still is in much of the U.S. Beekeepers like Rob McFarland, who keeps 25,000 bees on the roof of his house in West L.A., were essentially breaking the law.

That’s going to change. On Feb. 12 the Los Angeles City Council ordered a review of the city’s zoning laws to allow urban beekeeping in residential areas. And the council did so in part because they believed that promoting urban beekeeping could help fight the perplexing problem of severe bee morality, including the still mysterious colony collapse disorder (CCD). As L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz put it:

This puts our long-term food security at risk because pollinators are vital to our food supply. One-third of what we eat is due to pollinators, and they are a key to our agricultural industry.

(MORE: The Plight of the Honeybee)

There’s little reason that city dwellers shouldn’t be allowed to keep bees if they have the space, the money and the patience. Besides producing honey, urban bees can pollinate local gardens, helping green their city. But will the uptick in urban beekeeping really be enough to offset the mounting losses for commercial beekeepers, who this past winter lost nearly a third of their colonies?

Not exactly. While hobbyists beekeepers in cities and elsewhere certainly help keep bee populations going, there simply aren’t anywhere near enough of them to meet the enormous pollination needs of agriculture, should commercial bees keep dying. It takes billions of honeybees from around the U.S. to pollinate the spring’s almond crop in California, for example. Even if there were enough urban bees to do that job, location matters. Honeybees generally stay close to home when foraging for nutrition, so they’re unlikely to offer much help to the large farms that need them. And since bees need plants and flowers for forage, there may also be a limit to how many urban hives could ever be packed into a city like L.A. Already there are concerns in cities like New York and London that urban bees are running out of forage. The hard truth is that there simply aren’t enough urban bees out there to compensate for high mortality rates in commercial hives—and there probably never will be.

(PHOTO: The Bee, Magnified)

But that doesn’t mean that city bees can’t help. Urban bees can be a boon for urban agriculture, which is on the rise as well. And there’s some evidence that urban bees are healthier than their country counterparts. In a TEDx talk from 2012, Noah Wilson-Rich, a biologist at Tufts University and the founder of the Best Bees Company, reported research that found significantly higher survival rates in urban bees versus traditional rural bees, as well as higher honey yields. It’s not clear why that’s the case—it could be that urban bees are exposed to fewer toxic pesticides, or that they simply face less competition for resources. Plant diversity in city parks and gardens, surprisingly, is often better than in rural areas, which are increasingly dominated by crop monocultures that offer little nutrition for hungry honeybees. Commercial bees are also frequently shipped around the country to pollination sites, something that can stress populations—and something that homebody urban bees don’t have to worry about.

So Los Angelenos, embrace your city bees. They may not stave off the beepocalypse alone, but you can’t beat the buzz.

(VIDEO: Why Bees Are Going Extinct)

4 comments
urbangreen
urbangreen

To anyone following the bee situation, this guy seems quite suspicious. Does he happen to work for (or have a connection to, or get funding from) Bayer Health by any chance?? His insistence on the varroa mite as the main culprit behind the bee die off, with barely any mention of pesticides (all produced by Bayer), despite the fact that the EU recently blamed and banned them in response to Bee Colony death disorder, seems to mirror Bayer's own carefully crafted tune: blame the Varroa ( - most scientists working on the problem dismiss this and are blaming pesticides).


Bee "immune boosters" that we will just feed to bees? Just what nature needs, man-made vitamins in their system. Don't get me wrong, urban bee keeping is great, especially since the growth of urban farming is going to require bees, but I smell something else in this video and it ain't honey.

http://ecoinformer.wordpress.com

ralf123
ralf123

" Severe bee morality"? Yeah, that is a concern. Three were bees in my back yard and they kept trespassing on my flowerbed so I went after them with a cricket bat. Some bees just don't care about morals and laws.

StacyMcKenna
StacyMcKenna

@urbangreen  None of the researchers I've met at the past five CA State Beekeepers Association conventions have dismissed varroa AT ALL> In fact, varroa+viral infection demonstrates the highest correlation with CCD of any factor out there. Yes, they cite nutritional stress and pesticide stress as compounding factors as well, but no one claims pesticides are the entire cause.


Stacy McKenna

Secretary

Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association

susanrudnicki
susanrudnicki

@StacyMcKenna @urbangreenWhat this story failed to state, and most media coverage is also failing to tell the unknowing public, is that the GENETICS of the bees we want to keep are carried by FERAL bees.   Those are the bees kept by Rob McFarland, and me, and a lot of other beeks in the LA Basin.   There is a great schism in the beliefs of conventional, package bee keepers and those finding the ferals survivability and resilience is much stronger than the lab-bred and selected bees.   It is analagous to puppy mill dogs and their many in-bred maladies.  

   So, this statement from the piece---

from 2012, Noah Wilson-Rich, a biologist at Tufts University and the founder of the Best Bees Company, reported research that found significantly higher survival rates in urban bees versus traditional rural bees, as well as higher honey yields. It’s not clear why that’s the case

     is disingenuous.   We folks keeping feral, open mated bees know why they don't need chemical and antibiotic  treatments and constant monitoring, like hives of the conventional bees.  The "better living through chemistry" model has driven the immune response and resilience of Italian, lab-bred bees to a very low level.   Some of the conventional beekeepers are starting to admit that the CCD thing is something that could be addressed through looking at the success of those keeping feral bees.