December 2005

City Bees: Urban Honey is Twice as Sweet

When people think of honeybees, they usually summon up images of orchards and farm fields, old farmers in straw hats, and buzzy country afternoons. Would you be surprised to learn that highly prized honey is produced above Manhattan apartment buildings, on the roof of the Paris Opera, by London artists in a flat overlooking Tower Bridge, and right here around town homes and condos inside the Beltway?

Urban honey may seem like a contradiction in terms, but there are many ways in which the diversity and the energy of our densely-packed communities can offer a wonderful home for bees. Bees demand little space, and managing them is a matter of learning relatively simple basics... and then holding on for a lifetime of learning.

Bees in the city have access to more types of plants over a more extended growing season, and having happy honeybees around can add bloom to your cherry or pear tree (and fruit to your harvest basket). The honey produced by urban bees is also highly prized, featuring a wider variety of hard-to-find floral flavors. Honey produced by the London Beekeeper's Association is actually very difficult to get in Britain for this reason!

Much of the honey produced for sale in this country features a single crop name on the label: clover, orange blossom, peach or apple, for example. This is possible because in most farming areas a hive can be placed within acres and acres of a single crop. This is good for the crop, good for the farmer, and not bad for the honey consumer, either. It's also the logical result of the main contribution of honeybees: pollination of the food crops upon which we all depend, crops that are usually produced in large agricultural operations.

A bee in the city does not emerge from the hive each morning to find itself surrounded by fields and fields of a single type of flower, however. They have farther to fly. But on the plus side, the urban honeybee is surrounded by gardens, window boxes, parks, and public plantings with a rotating variety of nectar-producing delights. Like the variety of people who live in a thriving community, there are more kinds of green living things crammed into more unusual places, each doing their own individual thing, contributing to the tapestry of life around us.

The bees often get a longer blooming season in the city, and the honey gets a complex pedigree. For simplicity's sake, it's usually labeled 'wildflower,' and I tell my friends that it means that the beekeeper has no idea where it comes from. This, however, is only partly true.

In our area, beekeepers often mention the slogan, 'Take a Bee to Lunch: Plant a Flower,' but if you want to feed the whole hive, plant a tree! In Takoma Park and all over the Washington area, our lovely tree-lined streets are a million-mile smorgasbord for bees, and when each neighborhood tree flowers, you can see the nectar change within the hive.

For instance, when the holly tree in my neighbor's yard bloomed this Spring, my two rooftop hives were suddenly filled with combs full of crystal clear nectar that smelled like those heavenly (but hard to spot) holly flowers. Come May, however, the Tulip Poplar blooms, and its honey fills the colony with thousands of cells of a darker, delicious gold.

Finally, urban beekeeping has given me a tie back to nature that has changed my world. Walking down the street means a wall to wall survey of what is in bloom, how the weather has been trending, and who is working in each blossom. Looking for honeybees, I've become enamored of native bumblebees and spent my first real time with butterflies in 30 years.

And all this is just the beekeeper's share of the benefit! You may have heard that honeybees are under siege, and this is true. Pests like the varroa mite have killed thousands of colonies of bees since they first arrived 20 or so years ago, and the number of honeybees in the United States has been in steady decline ever since. Many beekeepers have retired, and the large commercial operations that facilitated the mites' spread represent a larger and larger proportion of what remains.

But the good news is that beekeeping is beginning to appeal to a new generation of hobbyists who keep only a few hives, a population that can be closely watched and carefully maintained. The hobbyist beekeeper, spread in small numbers across all kinds of communities, offers a reserve of preservation, pollination, and environmental health that benefits us all. That's news that goes down well with a teaspoon of honey.

If you are interested in becoming a beekeeper, you can contact one of several local beekeeping associations, and take a free 'short course' early next Spring. I'm a member of the Montgomery County Beekeepers,, but we'd be pleased to direct you to the club nearest you. You can also contact me via my beekeeping blog at

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