Urban Beekeeping.

Honeybees in the city

Beekeeing offers a sweet way to connect urban communities to food and farming.


By Amanda Kimble-Evans

Nearly one year after a hive arrived on the lawn at the White House, New York City finally lifted its decades-long ban on keeping honeybees on March 16, 2010. Renegade gardeners, hobbyists, and small-scale urban farming entrepreneurs across the city can now rest easy knowing the threat of a $2,000 fine is no longer.

Small-scale beekeeping is experiencing a renaissance. And local ordinances that previously lumped honeybees in the same category as a whole host of other wild, venomous “pets” are falling by the wayside as communities and local governments are realizing the positive influence these surprisingly docile and profitable little workers have on urban agriculture.

Bad news has been buzzing around honeybees for the last few years. What with the mystery of colony collapse disorder (CCD) and dire warnings that the food system as we know it may be in as much peril as the pollinators on which it relies. The good news is that awareness is growing in response to the honeybee health crisis and urban beekeepers provide a tangible educational opportunity for a population traditionally disconnected from the food system.

“Honeybees are a great connection to the agricultural world for folks who haven’t thought about it before,” says David Vigil, farm manager at East New York Farms!. “When we sell our honey at the farmers’ market, customers say ‘I’ve heard the honeybees are dying.’ It’s a good opportunity to talk about the larger issues of food and farming like pesticides and industrial production.”

East New York Farms! has had bee hives on their land for many years, including one that wasn’t legal, according to Vigil, and have helped countless gardeners start their own hives. Although he doubts the impact of small-scale beekeeping on CCD itself, as the disorder is more associated with large-scale migratory operations, he hopes the concern for bee health generated by the increasing number of hobby beekeepers will indirectly influence how we farm.

“More and more small-scale and hobby beekeepers are using innovative organic and sustainable techniques,” says Vigil. “It’s like a whole bunch of little research laboratories working out best practices that don’t rely on chemicals.”

Youth interns Warren Otty and Jason Thomas at East New York Farms! brush the frames clean while harvesting honey.

Bringing honeybees into urban gardens and farms is also a great way to boost production, and a back-door way of increasing diversity. With a hive full of pollinators to maintain, gardener beekeepers often find themselves growing a larger number and wider variety of plants. Financial diversity is another benefit. Vigil maintains the income potential is surprising.

“Beekeeping is a great money making opportunity that doesn’t take up a huge amount of space,” says Vigil. “It can be a good, steady source of income for urban farmers or even hobbyists.”

Maybe the saying should be, “You can catch more customers with honey than with vinegar.” When it comes down to it, everyone is delighted by honey. What a sweet way to change the world.

Want to champion garden-friendly zoning laws in your community? Tune in next week at www.rodaleinstitute.org.

Additional resources:

News story: Veteran beekeeper says 2010 is “worst year ever”

For beekeeping and other gardening workshops in New York City, visit East New York Farms! at www.eastnewyorkfarms.org.

Learn about the steps urban beekeeping fans took in New York to have the ban lifted at Just Food www.justfood.org.


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