Urban beekeeping is buzzing. In 2013, the City of Boston enacted Article 89, a zoning ordinance designed to encourage urban agriculture. Since then, honeybees have been appearing everywhere in the city. Hives are tucked away in the most unexpected places: backyard gardens, vacant lots, office building balconies. Several hotels, such as Taj Boston, the Intercontinental, and Fairmont Copley Plaza, have also gotten in on the action, featuring honey collected from their rooftop apiaries on their restaurant menus.
These important pollinators have turned previously unused urban spaces into places that benefit entire communities. Each day, thousands of honeybees will leave their hives and travel up to 3 miles to forage and pollinate plants in parks, gardens, backyards, and window boxes. Though it may seem counterintuitive, urban honeybees experience far better survival rates and produce more honey than their country cousins. The relative absence of pesticides and a greater diversity of plants put city bees at a significant advantage.
Honey is, of course, the primary output of honeybees. A single hive can produce more than 50 pounds of honey each year, a remarkable achievement given that each individual worker bee produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. With so many beehives spread out throughout the metropolitan area, it is possible to seek out hyperlocal honey, produced just blocks away from one’s home or place of work.
A miraculous substance whose properties humans have been incapable of synthesizing, honey functions both as a food source for the entire colony as well as an insulating material for the hive. Nectar, ingested by bees, is transformed into honey by stomach enzymes and injected into honeycomb cells. By flapping their wings, bees accelerate honey’s evaporation process. Once the moisture content in the honey reaches a level of approximately 17 percent, each cell is sealed off with a wax lid to prevent fermentation. Properly stored honey, with its high acidity levels, has a seemingly infinite shelf life: jars in their original state have been unearthed from ancient Egyptian tombs. Honeybees also produce bee pollen; propolis, a caulking material with medicinal and antiseptic properties; and beeswax, used in making candles and body lotions.
Unfortunately, honeybee populations have been on the decline since the early 2000s. Mites, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, disease, and habitat loss have taken a toll. This poses a direct threat to the agricultural economy, since approximately one-third of the food we consume is dependent on honeybee pollination. (The US Department of Agriculture values honeybees’ contribution to the national food economy at 15 billion dollars annually.)
Urban beekeepers have a crucial role to play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Consumers can create their own positive impact by choosing local honeys over commercial brands and planting bee-friendly plants, such as lindens, dandelions, hollies, mints, and native perennials favored by pollinators. Through education and outreach, strides can be taken to protect honeybees and support all they do for our local communities and food security.