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Too Bee or Not Too Bee: That's the Question for Urban Gardeners


By Cindy Atoji Keene

Every city needs healthy honeybees, said Noah Wilson-Rich, who founded The Best Bees Company to provide beekeeping services for urban residences and businesses. The apiary business, which delivers and installs hives, is currently managing 200 hives in places you’d least expect a colony ¬– apartment rooftops, high-rise hotels, cosmopolitan restaurants, and inner city schools. “Honey beehives in Boston and Cambridge are doing better than those in rural or suburban areas, which is counterintuitive, but might be due to the fewer pesticides or community gardens that offer a buffet of nutrients,” said Wilson-Rich, 31, a behavioral ecologist who uses company proceeds to fund research to improve honey bee health.

Q: Why would someone want a honeybee hive?
A: Honeybee hives are so easy to do and very little space is needed – maybe a 2-by-3 foot space. Local honey is hard to come by, and it doesn’t get more local than your own backyard. Some people have yards that are too shady to grow any plants; they’ll fill this underutilized space by putting a hive next to a grill; use a beehive as a table, or as a platform to grow potted plants. Many of our clients know bees have very important roles as pollinators and it’s their way of recognizing their contribution to our food production.

Q: How do you build the beehives?
A: All our beehives are constructed by hand. We build a wooden box with frames that hang inside; on each frame are sheets of wax with hexagon patterns indented on the wax. In the springtime, we’ll take a package of bees – it looks like a shoebox with a screen – that contains about three pounds of bees or 10 thousand bees and one queen, and essentially dump the bees into the hives. They crawl down, settle in, and build out the beeswax comb from the wax foundation.

Q: Won’t the bees possibly sting people if they’re near homes or businesses?
A: Bees have a typical flight path, and there are ways to encourage bees to go directly to “highway in the sky” that leads to a garden – and away from where people are standing or sitting. The main idea is to put some sort of barrier, such as a lattice fence, about a foot away from the beehive opening, which encourages bees to fly straight up instead of directly out. It’s fun to see all this activity. Honeybees die when they sting, so they don’t wanting to be aggressive. These are the good guys.

Q: You say that beehives are both fascinating and fickle. Why fickle?
A: I have a Ph.D. in honeybee biology, but still some hives will die no matter what we do. With lots of disease and infection, these are tough times for honeybees. We guarantee live healthy bees, so we replace bees, but it’s very sad when a hive dies. Beekeepers check in about once a month and record all the beekeeping data using a iPhone app called Buzz that’s custom to our operation. We track how much bees there are; how honey is in the hive, and record any signs of disease.

Q: Is beekeeping legal in Boston?
A: In the oldest parts of the city, bee keeping is explicitly allowed, while other parts, the city code says it is forbidden, but when you dig deeper, there’s no specific mention of beekeeping. It’s like the old blue laws that say kissing in public is illegal – nothing is enforced. The Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Mayor are working on fixing the legislation. Article 89 will create clarity and consistency regarding urban agriculture, including bee keeping in the city.

Q: How many bee stings would you say you’ve gotten?
A: To be totally honest, I can't even count. Definitely thousands. But I don’t want that to scare anyone, because I tend not to wear full protective gear as recommended by beekeepers. I don’t mind working with my bare hands, so if I squish a bee by accident, that might be when I’m stung. But I actually find mosquito bites much worse than a bee bite. Those hurt like hell for days.

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