By Leigh Belanger / Photos by Michael Piazza
The bike route down Melnea Cass Boulevard is bumpy with tree roots busting through the pavement as over 100 cycling honeybee enthusiasts navigate their way to a Roxbury warehouse one Sunday in June. There, swarms of bees recently captured in Upham’s Corner and Roslindale are recuperating at an “urban bee sanctuary” run by biologist and entrepreneur Noah Wilson-Rich, founder of Best Bees Company.
The group is part of the Tour de Hives, a daylong biking tour of Boston’s beekeeping scene organized by the Boston Beekeepers Club. Boston’s beekeeping community is growing: attendance nearly doubled between 2012 and 2013’s Tour de Hives, says Stephanie Elson, co-founder of the Boston Beekeepers Club and one of the tour organizers. Rick Reault, president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association, estimates that for the past five or six years, about 1,000 new beekeepers have picked up the hobby each year.
Boston’s densely populated neighborhoods might not seem like the ideal setting for a surge in beekeeping. But with its network of parks, backyard and community gardens, and pockets of urban agriculture, the city is uniquely suited to support the growing numbers of beekeepers and their bees—from the three hives kept along the banks of the Charles River by the Boston University Beekeepers, to the bees kept on hotel and restaurant rooftops in the South End and Back Bay, to the scores of backyard hives in neighborhoods from Harvard Square to Jamaica Plain and Mattapan.
The wind is whipping over the Charles on the April day when I head over the BU Bridge and down to a grassy clearing by the boathouse with student and beekeeper Brendan Hathaway to see the BU Beekeepers’ hives. There’s not much nectar-gathering happening. A few bee carcasses litter the entry to the hives.
On a day like this, Hathaway explains, he’ll check in on the hives, make sure the bees are doing okay, and look for pests like mites and other intruders. “I like having that day-to-day connection,” he says, offering me a taste of the club’s spring 2012 harvest off of a compostable spoon.
It’s light in color and a little minty, a little spicy. A fall honey, Hathaway explains, will be darker in color with a deeper flavor. Honey’s flavor profiles are determined by what’s blooming when the bees are gathering nectar, which makes raw honey such an intriguing food. It tastes like the place it’s from.
For urban beekeepers, the unique flavor profile might be harder to pin down. The bees in the backyard apiary of Emile Bruneau and Stephanie Elson in Jamaica Plain might visit a neighbor’s yard, the Arnold Arboretum, and a nearby community garden in the course of the day. But even if Elson and Bruneau don’t know exactly what nectar their bees are gathering, they do know their bees are productive: the couple harvested 10 gallons of honey from two of their hives last year.
Some people might start beekeeping because they want a source of raw, hyper-local honey. Many gardeners see keeping bees as a complement to growing flowers and vegetables. Like Elson, some beekeepers also immerse themselves in crafting candles, soap, and lip balm from the beeswax.
But as many beekeepers that stick with the hobby attest, the creatures themselves soon become the main attraction. “The honey and the other products are kind of secondary, “ says Elson. “It’s more about the creature of the bee.”
“The hive itself is an organism,” explains Jeff Murray, a 40-year beekeeper from Cambridge whose interest in observational hives led him to build and install hives for a couple of public schools in Boston. With observational hives, he says, “you’re watching this incredible organism functioning in many different ways.” Like ants, termites, and wasps, bees are social insects. But they’re the only ones with a prized byproduct—and for the most part, because they are pollinators, they’re not seen as pests.
Made up of worker bees, drones, and a queen, the complex communication and division of labor in a hive is fascinating to observe. Bees have a language, says Murray. When worker bees out foraging for nectar return to the hive, they perform what’s known as a waggle or tremble dance, which indicates how far food is from the hive. Inside the hive, watching the workers and drones interact with each other and with the queen is “like watching Game of Thrones in the living room,” says Bruneau of the small observational hive he and Elson installed in their JP home. “We call it Bee TV.”
When you watch a hive or observe bees at work in a garden, you can see how absorbed bees are in maintaining their own ecosystem. “If you’re not a flower, they don’t care about you,” says Wilson-Rich, who hopes to help the public understand that bees are “not only not aggressive, they’re engaging creatures,” he says.
Best Bees has installed hives on a handful of hotel and restaurant rooftops around the city, a practice owners sometimes keep quiet in hopes that anxious neighbors won’t call the city for fear of swarming, stinging bees.
At the Tour de Hives this past June, over 80 people watched as bees from a trio of hives on the rooftop garden at the Fairmont Copley Plaza gathered nectar from the verbena, thyme, lavender, and honeysuckle plants blooming in raised beds outside the guest room windows. Bees ricocheted off the windows and landed on people’s sunglass frames and in their hair. No one flinched.
Wilson-Rich encourages this relaxed attitude when he installs hives for clients or gives talks on the subject. Bees can thrive in urban settings, he says. Urban agriculture, diverse gardens, and parklands all combine to provide bees with a varied diet that will help keep them healthy. They just need people to embrace their presence and be their stewards. “There’s an interdependence at work,” says Wilson-Rich. “They need us and we need them.”
The rising interest in backyard beekeeping comes at a time when honeybees need all the help they can get. Major honeybee deaths were first noticed and reported in 2006, and though researchers haven’t settled on a single cause, the situation has not improved over the years. It’s estimated that about one-third of the world’s bee population has succumbed to what researchers have called colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon where entire colonies disappear, leaving no dead bodies behind.
When bees gather nectar to bring back to the hive, they unintentionally get pollen stuck to their bodies, which they then carry and leave behind on other plants as they continue their hunt for nectar. This pollinates—or fertilizes—the plant, starting seed production in flowers and food crops.
Bees, birds, and butterflies are all key pollinators, but bees are especially important to our food supply, pollinating $15 billion worth of food crops annually, according to the USDA. Without them, crops like almonds, apples, melons—even alfalfa used as livestock feed—would become scarce. “Anyone who likes food needs to care about bees, “ says Wilson-Rich.
It’s a reason to encourage bees on rooftops and in backyards in cities all over the country, including our own. Even if keeping bees or planting pollinator gardens seems like a small response to a global problem, it can’t hurt, says JP beekeeper Elson. “Bees are in trouble, but we can help them.”
Leigh Belanger is a writer and communications consultant with a focus on community food systems. She is the author of The Boston Homegrown Cookbook and the former program director for Chefs Collaborative, a national chef network dedicated to building a more sustainable food supply. She lives and cooks in Boston with her family.