Ever walk down the street and hear a faint buzzing noise? You might look up towards the closest utility pole, but you could be better off with your gaze closer to the ground, looking for urban bees. Beekeeping on rooftops and in backyards is a growing trend in urban areas where people who prefer their honey hyperlocal are raising their own bees, forming beekeeping associations, and, at times, evading the long arm of the law.
It’s not that beekeeping is necessarily strictly forbidden. Rather, beekeepers are contending with neighbors who consider their hives a nuisance and aren’t afraid to call in complaints, which leads to uniformed visitors and a bee eviction notice. If it happens enough times across a municipality, city council members and other officials can decide they’ve had it with bees. They write some regulations to ban or tightly control beekeeping around the city, and the freewheeling, friendly, open nature of the craft starts to disintegrate under pressure from regional governments.
Beekeepers are pushing to change that, creating a positive space for bees while maintaining their own hives. That’s particularly evident in Buffalo, New York, where a formerly heavily industrial city is exploring its agricultural side with not just urban beekeeping, but also organizations like Grass Roots Gardens and Urban Roots. Far from being a purely Coastal enterprise, urban gardening and farming are penetrating into the Rust Belt, taking over empty lots in Cleveland, spreading out on rooftoops in Detroit, and more. In Buffalo, beekeeping is going big, even as it’s still on the down low to avoid attracting unwanted attention — at least, until the legal status of beekeeping can be clarified.
Urban bees aren’t just a great source of local honey. They also act as pollinators, which is key for urban farmers and gardeners who want to grow viable crops in a sustainable space. Furthermore, they’re fighting colony collapse disorder, which is devastating commercial hives across the United States and raising questions not just about the future of the honey supply, but also the myriad of crops and plants in nature that rely on bees to survive. Without bees, we’d be living in a very different world — and the efforts of every beekeeper make a difference.
Burgh Bees in Pittsburgh provides a good model for getting beekeeping legal and out in the open. The organization maintains a community apiary and trains beekeepers, but it also worked with the city to establish a functional municipal code that would accommodate the needs of beekeepers and the community.
Residents can apply for official permits to keep bees, allowing them to keep their hives in the open. With each hive that goes in, the stigma and fear that surround beekeeping are eroding, showing people who might be gun-shy that it’s possible to cohabitate with bees.
Similar models have been used in other cities looking to bring urban livestock and gardening movements out into the open. By creating a permitting and legalization process, advocates are bringing legitimacy to their efforts. However, such processes can sometimes generate inadvertent barriers, like high non-refundable permit application fees that may discourage low-income people from applying.
Reaching a regulatory balance can be tough, particularly in communities where people may not be familiar with their legal rights and the civil bureaucracy, as is often the case in first generation immigrant neighborhoods.
Will Buffalo be able to take the best from urban farming, gardening and livestock efforts across the country to legalize bees?
Image credit: Don Hankins.
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