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Urban honeybees' winter struggles and triumphs

Posted by boston.com  April 1, 2014 03:54 PM

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Diana J. Campbell

Sadie Richards observes the vertical slats from her beehive. They are covered in honey, combs, and part of the dead colony of bees.

In February, Sadie Richards decided to inspect her hives for the first time since November. Standing in Jamaica Plain’s snow-covered Leland Street Herb Garden, Richards opened both of her hives to find blackened piles of dead bees. Nearby, her friend’s hives had also died.

The collapses weren’t caused by the cold. Bee clusters keep their hives between 80 to 90 degrees all winter by vibrating their wings. Instead, Richards sadly took samples as she explained that nosema, a common honeybee disease, probably killed the bees.

“This is the biggest trouble as new beekeepers,” said Waylon Brown, Richards’ husband. “Just establishing the new hive and getting them through the first year.”

Despite the difficulties of keeping healthy bee colonies, urban beekeeping is becoming popular from coast to coast. New York legalized urban beekeeping in 2010, and the Los Angeles City Council has considered lifting a ban on beekeeping.

Boston has no such ban, which has allowed apiaries to flourish around the city, including on the roofs of several major hotels, like Fairmont Copley Plaza and InterContinental Boston. The InterContinental uses the honey it harvests at its restaurant, for cocktails and at its spa.

Although Richards’ experience is an example of the many Boston beehives that struggle to survive over winter, urban bees generally have a higher winter survival rate than hives in the country, said Noah Wilson-Rich, of The Best Bees Company. And, they produce more honey on average than rural bees. Among numerous hypotheses for why this might be, most urban beekeepers, including Wilson-Rich, agree that a lack of pesticides and a more diverse range of flora in urban areas give city bees an edge over rural bees.

The Best Bees Company sets up and manages about 200 beehives at homes and businesses throughout New England. Most notably, the company manages seven beehives for InterContinental Boston, four at both Four Seasons Boston and The Taj Boston, three at both Fairmont Copley Plaza and Fairmont Battery Wharf, and one at The Liberty Hotel. Wilson-Rich said that many larger chains like InterContinental and Fairmont set blanket requirements to have bees in rooftop gardens as one way to promote sustainability.

Wilson-Rich said bees are important to society for three main reasons: robust agriculture, scientific research and economic stability. Bees contribute over $15 billion to the US economy annually through their role as pollinators to crops, he said. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that one-third of all food and drinks rely on pollination. As a result, the declining number of bees could cause price increases for 130 types of crops, Wilson-Rich said.

“Anyone who eats food, like fruits and veggies should find bees important,” said Wilson-Rich. “And anyone who doesn’t like fruits and veggies, but likes cattle needs to care about the alfalfa and the hay for that cattle.”

He says that people should help strengthen the honeybee population, particularly by developing it in urban areas where bees thrive more in winter. However, despite threats of viruses, pests, mysterious colony-collapse disorder, and drastic fits of cold, humans create urban bees’ greatest opposition.

“Honeybees have a bad public relations challenge,” said Wilson-Rich. “The benefits outweigh any costs from the very rare human systemic reaction … we need them for healthy and affordable food.”

Despite bees’ bad images, beekeeping is still becoming more popular in cities. So popular in fact, that although it is not on the market, Philips has even designed a glass pod indoor beehive as a “far-future design concept” that would allow beekeeping at home. The pod would have a tube that leads to the outdoors to allow bees to continue pollinating.

In addition to homes and hotels, apiaries are proliferating on urban campuses too. In Boston, both Harvard University and Boston University have formed beekeepers associations within the last three years.

“It’s a little sexy to keep bees,” said Brendan Hathaway, president of the Boston University Beekeepers Club.

The club set up its first hive three years ago on the banks of the Charles River, near the BU boathouse. They now have two hives and have proven that bee swarms could be tamed. At BU 2012’s graduation ceremony across the river on Nickerson Field, a swarm of honeybees covering a chair caused panic. The BU Beekeepers calmly moved the swarm into a box until the hive could be integrated with one of the two Charles River hives, where the colony still exists.

“I was initially scared of bees, but now I’m not all that terrified,” said Hathaway about his transformation since joining the BU Beekeepers four years ago. “I have a greater respect for life and how cool it is that this all happens.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Globe and Boston University.

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