The biodiversity of cities makes them surprisingly good places to raise bees. This was the premise behind Dr. Noah Wilson-Rich’s presentation on Urban Beekeeping at the Philadelphia Flower Show earlier this month.
Wilson-Rich, who has a degree in the niche field of bee immunology, has studied not just why bees die but also why they survive. He quickly explained his claim. Because our suburbs are so green — full of lawns, trees, and shrubs — it’s easy to assume that they also are bio-diverse. Likewise, because cities appear to be little more than buildings and pavement — full of pollution and teeming with humans — it’s easy to assume that they are more or less sterile when it comes to wildlife. It turns out, however, that exactly the reverse is true.
It’s our highly-manicured lawns and properties that have the least plant diversity, while cities have the most. In fact, studies show that cities can have three, four, and even five times the number of flower species than the surrounding suburbs do. The explanation? It’s weeds growing in cracks, crannies, and abandoned areas — weeds like Japanese knotweed, clover, dandelions, and even bamboo — that go unnoticed except by pollinators. “Pollinators love weeds,” said Wilson-Rich. “That’s why weeds are so prolific.”
While there may not be a lot of flowering plants right downtown, bees can fly anywhere from three to five miles a day in search of nectar. Such a range provides plenty of opportunities to find plants. That there is plenty of foraging to be had in and around urban areas is borne out by statistics from the greater Chicago area, which supports upwards of 7,000 beehives.
Urban parks may provide other flower opportunities as well. Wilson-Rich lives in the Boston area. He discovered that a lot of this city’s honey comes from the nectar from water lilies. I haven’t visited the Boston Common in about seven years, so I don’t recall if there are water lilies in the pond, but there probably are. After all, it’s called the Frog Pond and nearby is the Lily Pad Cafe . . .
Another surprise is that the higher up bees are located, the better they do. Wilson-Rich’s own organization, The Best Bees Company, has installed beehives both on rooftops and in people’s yards. In monitoring the hives, he and his staff have discovered that rooftop bees “make more honey and survive better.” They’re not immune from colony collapse disorder and other problems, but they do better.
There’s a lack of biodiversity on today’s mega-farms that makes it necessary for farmers to “hire” bees to pollinate their fruit and nut trees. A startling statistic: “In America today, more than two million bees live on the highway.” Their hives are loaded onto flatbed trailers and hauled across the country from orchard to orchard. This is not a healthy lifestyle for bees.
This is distressing news, especially in light of growing evidence that use of herbicides is taking a toll on honeybees. While there are other bee species that do some pollinating, none do it like honeybees, and their demise would be devastating to our food supply.
What’s encouraging is the number of people who are setting up their own hives. Catching this growing wave of interest in home beekeeping, The Best Bees Company helps homeowners get started, from overcoming anxiety around working with insects with stingers, to selecting and placing hives, and populating them with bees.
“You can do it,” says Wilson-Rich. “You just have to know what you’re doing and have a plan.” As a first step, he recommends connecting with your local beekeepers association. They’re everywhere!
In Chester County: www.chescobees.org
In Montgomery County: www.montcopabees.org
In Bucks County: www.bucksbeekeepers.com
In Philadelphia County: www.phillybeekeepers.org
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Join the conversation at “Chester County Roots,” a Facebook page for gardeners in the Delaware Valley. Go to Facebook, search for Chester County Roots, and “like” the page. To receive notice of updates, click or hover on “Liked” to set your preferences.