Beekeeping in the city
Germany is buzzing

Bees are one of the most important production animals, outstripped only be cows and pigs.
Bees are one of the most important production animals, outstripped only be cows and pigs. | Photo (detail): budabar © 123RF

Beekeeping in the city? Those diligent makers of honey stuck between asphalt and concrete? Believe it or not, more and more urbanites are keeping bee colonies in their courtyards and gardens and on their balconies and rooftops.

Urban beekeepers are not a completely new phenomenon. A former staff member of the Opéra Garnier in Paris has had bees on the rooftop of his ex-employer's building since 1985. New York City's skyscrapers are dotted with colonies kept by an ex-bus driver who calls himself the "rooftop beekeeper". In Berlin there have been beehives atop the city parliament building since the Weimar Republic. What is new about the movement is that it is mostly young people who are getting into urban honey making. What was once just a boring pastime for old people has now become a trendy hobby.

The city as an ideal habitat

The trend kicked off as a result of numerous initiatives originally intended to make people more aware of the bee die-off and promote increased appreciation for these hard-working little creatures. Now there are bee colonies in Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg. In fact, it is easy to integrate beekeeping into daily life in the city: it is relatively low maintenance, the animals feed themselves, and the city is an ideal habitat for Apis mellifera (honey bee). Public parks, private gardens, cemeteries, fallow lots, balconies and roof terraces all have blossoming plants at different times of the year, making it possible for them to find nourishment from spring until fall.

Surprisingly, the city is even better than many rural areas, where focus is placed on harvest-oriented monocropping operations (rapeseed, corn, etc.), which blossom for just a short time. It is also often a couple of degrees warmer in the city, which allows bees to swarm longer and therefore produce more honey: urban bee colonies churn out nearly double the output of their rural comrades. In addition, city plants are to a great extent free of pesticides, and it has been verified that city honey doesn't contain traces of exhaust emissions and particulates because the bees filter the noxious substances out of the nectar. Pesticides cannot be filtered out.

Beekeepers on a trial basis

Childhood memories. A longing for nature. Trying to do something good for the environment. There are loads of reasons for becoming a beekeeper, but how do you actually get started? First you need a package of bees, a place for them to live (a hive), some tools, a protective suit and a smoker to distract the swarm when you're working on the hive. It's also a good idea to do a course or study up on the basic theories of beekeeping. Many beekeeping associations offer newcomers a "trial package" that includes a rental hive for a year, after which you can either continue with it or not. During the trial year there is typically an experienced beekeeper to help you as well.

For a long time beekeepers were on the decline in Germany but since the urban trend began the fall in numbers has abated. In the years 2010–2012 the number of organized beekeepers has risen from 83,400 to about 94,000. Yet the number of bee colonies has dropped from 1.2 million in 1991 to 750,000 in 2012. The trend is also being seen in other countries. Experts see it as an alarming sign and fear it will have drastic effects on both nature and commerce: Honeybees and their "wild" kin (bumble bees, etc.) pollinize roughly 80 to 90 percent of all food plants.

The third-most important producer

According to the Deutscher Imkerbund, an association of beekeepers, the economic benefit of pollination exceeds the value of honey production by 10 to 15 fold. That makes bees one of the most important production animals in Germany, outstripped only be cows and pigs. Some of the possible causes for the bee die-off include the use of pesticides and the Varroa-Milbe, a bee imported in about 1977 from Asia to Europe. The tiny Milbe, just 1.6 mm in length, lays its eggs in the breeding cells of the local bees. Then, when it hatches, it feeds itself with the blood of the other maggots and the bite wounds from the parasite simultaneously infect them with viruses. Among the pesticides, products with the agent neonicotinoid are the most dangerous. It directly affects the nervous system and hinders vital functions, orientation, learning capacities and communication in bees. As a result of the findings, a two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids will begin on December 1, 2013. Unfortunately, however, the damage will be long-lasting as the substance remains for years in the soil.

Despite the fact that the new trend of urban beekeeping has not had a significant impact on the bee die-off, this new generation of city apiarists does seem to share a sense of responsibility about the dilemma. For many of them, honey production is not the most important element. Instead, they are doing events, presentations and demonstrations as well as using articles and blogs online to raise awareness of how vital bees are for the balance of our ecosystem.