There is an ancient myth that tells of prophetic bees who predict the future and bring it into existence. Looking at the issue of bees in our food system today we see clear indications of where we are and where we’re going. The industrial production of food in North America, especially of corn, soy, and canola, involves pesticides known as neonicotinoids that some studies suggest are the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in honey bees. The western honey bee, along with other insect, bird, and bat pollinators, are necessary for 35% of global crop production. The pesticides have combined with an increase of parasitic and bacterial infections of bees to cause an epidemic of CCD, marked by the disappearance of worker bees leaving only the queen, nurse bees, and immature bees in the hive, which does not fare well in this desolated state. This disease has affected up to 25% of North American apiaries.
Einstein said if the bees die, humans have 4 years left to live. For some time it has been apparent that our massive industrialized food system involves certain unsustainable practices, such as Amazon deforestation to make way for Brazilian cattle. There is no clearer sign that the future threat entailed by the idea of unsustainability is quickly becoming our present reality than the case of the pollinator bees. The industrial food producers, wanting to ensure maximum production and deter predatory insect species, have done damage to the very species necessary for the production of the food in the first place. This has drawn the attention of the world, with the US President, the UN, and global health organizations rushing to put together a response to this enormous problem. There has also been a conscientious grassroots reaction to the bee crisis, and while rural and agricultural populations of bees have been on the decline, we have seen the rise of urban beekeeping in concert with the urban farming and locavore movements.
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The president and the bee
Last year, President Obama announced a plan to restore 7 million acres of bee habitat by planting the area with the natural diversity of pesticide-free, bee-friendly plants. A decade earlier, D.C. resident Jeff Miller was looking for a way to increase the production of his backyard vegetable garden, having learned about the decline of both wild and agricultural bee populations. At this time, there were only a few bee hives in D.C. operated illegally and in secret. “I figured I could put a couple of hives on my roof as an experiment,” and the experiment paid off. “As an enthusiastic newbie, I thought that if I could help a few more folks do what I did, we’d have a nice little urban beekeeping community. In our first year we helped about 60 folks become urban beekeepers.” The project has since expanded up along I-95 to New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, with Jeff and his partners helping people get started in urban beekeeping, and offering a hive management service, The Georgetown Honeybee Company (georgetownhoneybee.com). In 2013, D.C. legalized urban beekeeping, and Jeff has seen great demand among residents, with about 100 hives registered with the city last year.
“Einstein said if the bees die, humans have 4 years left to live.”
A primary concern with environmental stewardship unites urban beekeepers like Jeff Miller and Toronto’s Chris Campbell. Universally they say that this is not a cash crop or a career. Each hive can produce 3-5 gallons (14-18 litres) of honey each year, an abundance to be sure, but not equal to the effort required to keep the hive healthy. Keeping bees healthy must be an end in itself for the urban beekeeper. When Campbell heard that the bee population was in decline and how closely bees are linked to our own survival and food system, he wanted to do something to help. After researching beekeeping and finding a supportive community of like-minded individuals in Toronto, he started his own hives and is now an active promoter of the movement working with several cities in Ontario to install hives for the benefit of the bees, whose honey would be donated to local food banks. He has also developed a “hive share” model for people to get involved who don’t have space for bees (www.hiveshare.ca). They can purchase whole, half or quarter hives and Campbell will install the hives in areas ideal for bees, manage them, and deliver the honey to the customers or to the local foodbank.
From the local to the global in honey bee stewardship
Inspired by pioneers in the urban honey bee movement like Campbell and Miller, multinational corporations have adopted the practice. Since 2008, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts has installed 20 apiaries for honey bees and 18 “bee hotels” for the solitary pollinator bees so important to the food supply, at hotels around the world, mostly on rooftops and other bee-friendly areas (www.fairmont.com/promotions/fairmontbees). The bees have been a hit with guests, who love the commitment to the environment and the opportunity to enjoy food and drink made with the honey in hotel bars and restaurants. Fairmont’s Kaitlynn Furse tells me that “honey bee hives and pollinator bee hotels are a great draw for guests. As soon as people hear about them they always want to go take a look.” I heard from Chef Gavin Stephenson from the Fairmont Olympic in Seattle, who manages that hotel’s honey bee program and keeps bees at home. The apiary at the Olympic produces 600 pounds of honey annually, all of which is used in recipes in the restaurants and in the brewing of their own beers and ciders. The regulations in Washington State are strict, and in order to operate the program, Chef Gavin had to pass exams to be certified as a beekeeper. Beekeeping as stewardship, food production and tourist attraction, a kind of ecotourism, has been a good fit for Fairmont, and the program is set to expand this year.
Considering the decline of the agricultural bee and the rise of the urban bee both among individuals and corporations, one wonders what further changes are in store as more sectors of the industrial food system prove to be not only unsustainable but indeed unsustained and moribund. Keep your eye on the bees; they’ll tell you something.