Sunday, January 10, 2010

Up on the Roof: Bees in the City

You may have heard the buzz about the current honeybee crisis. In recent years millions of hives have fallen victim to the mysterious colony collapse disorder, which is basically a term for what happens when bees abandon the hive and die. The reasons for the collapse are unknown, and there are quite a few hypotheses floating around, from insect diseases to changes in the climate and pesticide use. Whatever the case may be, the fact is that the world is running low on honeybees, the implications of which could be far more serious than simply not being able to harvest honey. Honeybees are one of the most important pollinators, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one third of the food we eat is at some point pollinated by insects, largely bees. An unlikely effort to reinforce bee populations has taken off around the world, but is it effective?

From Chicago to Paris, London to New York and Los Angeles, city rooftops and gardens are humming with busy honeybees. Urban beekeeping is beginning to take root, and is the perfect compliment to urban farming, opening up brave new world of urban agriculture. In some ways, this is agriculture on the edge; people often cringe at the thought of hives perched on roofs, and keeping bees is actually illegal in New York City. But in reality, small, independent beekeepers are doing urban gardens a huge favor. Urban honeybees help the growing urban gardening landscape, and the resulting honey gives urbanites another local food source. In Chicago’s West Side a honey co-operative has formed, providing training and jobs for under-employed residents. The honey and a few value-added products are sold at city farmer’s markets.

Small bee keeping operations are much more sustainable, and much less likely to experience colony collapse, than big colonies that are often transported from one giant farm to the next to pollinate crops. It is good to note, however, that although urban beekeeping is an exciting new trend with multiple benefits for the environment and local food, it doesn’t do a whole lot to solve the global bee shortage and the effects it could have on our current food sources. Bees do not go very far from the hive, and pollinate with a close radius of their home. In other words, bees from Chicago are not buzzing out to vegetable fields in Iowa, and big agriculture should still be concerned about potential repercussions of colony collapse. As long as we rely on agribusiness for the bulk of our food, we rely on lots of bees. Perhaps this is yet another sign urging us to stay local, and to think on a smaller scale. The honeybees upstairs on the roof support the garden in the empty lot next door, and so do I.

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