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)