Why urban beekeeping is a rising trend in major cities

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Urban beekeeping is on the rise in major cities. Photo by Laura Fong/PBS NewsHour Weekend

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By Sam Weber and Laura Fong

Don Shump manages four hives of honey bees on the roof of the Sofitel hotel – 14 floors up from the street – in downtown Philadelphia. “Usually people go, ‘You’re doing what on the roof in Philadelphia and how high?’ And the conversation goes from there,” he said.

Shump started the Philadelphia Bee Company in 2011, and now handles about 65 beehives in 15 locations around the city.

“Being able to keep bees in an urban setting allows us to take advantage of the blight we have downtown. We have 40,000 abandoned lots in the city,” Shump said. “Bees really love the weeds that we have. Philadelphia in particular has a couple hundred years of botanical awesomeness going on.”

Shump is part of a growing movement of urban beekeepers around the country. Cities that until recently restricted beekeeping — like Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles — have lifted those restrictions. Philadelphia now has about 400 registered bee colonies and 75 beekeepers. The movement is gaining steam, in part, because the number of bee colonies in the U.S. has dropped dramatically in recent decades.

Now, the number of part-time and backyard beekeepers are on the rise, with an estimated 120,000 backyard beekeepers in the U.S., according to Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine.

One of those backyard beekeepers is Suzanne Matlock, who began keeping hives on the front lawn of her Philadelphia home in 2009. She became interested in beekeeping after hearing about Colony Collapse Disorder, the sudden loss of 30 to 90 percent of bee colonies, which can lead to a shortage of bees needed to pollinate crops.

“Maybe it’d make a tiny little difference if each person would keep a hive of bees, just like each person composts or recycles,” said Matlock.

With a background in biology and chemistry, Matlock is working to prolong the life of bees, raising queen bees that can survive cold Northeast winters.

“My goal is to come up with some great genetic livestock that survives Pennsylvania winters and is nice and easy to work with,” she said. “If you can get a little extra honey out of them, that’s good too.”

Read the full transcript below.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the roof of the Sofitel hotel in downtown Philadelphia, 14 floors above the street, Don Shump manages four hives of honey bees.

DON SHUMP: We actually took some frames out of this one.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Each one contains as many as 100,000 bees.

DON SHUMP: Usually people go, ‘You’re doing what on the roof in Philadelphia and how high? And the conversation goes from there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shump began beekeeping as a hobby, then five years ago, he quit his job as a web developer and became a beekeeper full time.

He started the Philadelphia Bee Company, and now handles about 65 beehives in 15 locations around the city.

His bees produced more than 1,000 pounds of honey last year, an unusual agricultural bounty for an urban environment.

DON SHUMP: Being able to keep bees in an urban setting allows us to take advantage of the blight we have downtown. We have 40,000 abandoned lots in the city. Bees really love the weeds that we have. It gives us really interesting and complex honeys. When you bring bees downtown to an urban setting, you’re getting all kinds of different plants. Philadelphia in particular has a couple hundred years of botanical awesomeness going on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: About a mile and a half east of the hotel, Shump manages eight more hives on the roof of Shane Confectionery, one of the oldest candy stores in the country.

DON SHUMP: People don’t know there are any hives here until I show up with a smoker and veil, and people go where are the bees? And I go [points up].

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some of the honey these bees produce will go on sale downstairs in the candy store. Some will make its way into “honeycomb” ice cream at the Franklin Fountain next door.

DON SHUMP: This one is going to be full of honey. That’s beautiful.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Honeybees are much more benign than wasps and other stinging insects, but it doesn’t stop an occasional sting.

DON SHUMP: (gets stung) — you can actually see it twitch and burrow. What you do is take your fingernail and pull it out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shump is part of a growing movement of urban beekeepers around the country. Philadelphia now has about 400 registered bee colonies and 75 beekeepers.

Cities that until recently restricted beekeeping — like Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles — have lifted those restrictions.

The movement is being embraced because the number of bee colonies in the U.S. had dropped dramatically in recent decades.

DON SHUMP: In the 1940s, we had 5 million beehives in the United States. Now we’re about half that. We’re just starting to see a resurgence in an interest in beekeeping.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That resurgence has led to an estimated 120,000 backyard beekeepers in the U.S., like Suzanne Matlock.

SUZANNE MATLOCK: This is where the queen is building a colony.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Matlock began keeping hives on the front lawn of her Philadelphia home seven years ago.

She became interested in beekeeping after hearing about Colony Collapse Disorder, the sudden loss of 30 to 90 percent of bee colonies, which can lead to a shortage of bees needed to pollinate crops.

SUZANNE MATLOCK: Maybe it’d make a tiny little difference if each person would keep a hive of bees, just like each person composts or recycles.

HARI SREENIVASAN: With a background in biology and chemistry, Matlock is also working to prolong the life of bees, raising queen bees that can survive cold Northeast winters.

SUZANNE MATLOCK: My goal is to come up with some great genetic livestock that survives Pennsylvania winters and is nice and easy to work with. If you can get a little extra honey out of them, that’s good too.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Several times a year, Matlock harvests the honey that her bees produce.

SUZANNE MATLOCK: Slice down with a knife.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She removes the wax caps to get to the honey, and then uses a hand-powered centrifuge to extract it.

SUZANNE MATLOCK: Spin as fast as you can…

HARI SREENIVASAN: She says the taste changes with the seasons.

SUZANNE MATLOCK: Fall honey is much darker than the spring honey.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hobbyists and part-timer beekeepers like Matlock now account for 40 percent of U.S. honey production.

SUZANNE MATLOCK: Look at how much we got just from 4 frames.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For Matlock, though, tending to her hives is simply therapeutic.

SUZANNE MATLOCK: Once I got over an initial fear of the bees when I was actually in the hive, I came to this point where I felt so serene. Every time I’m working in the beehive, time passes really quickly.

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