Go Deeper

TODAY at 1:00 pm: Learn About Urban Beekeeping at WetLand

Posted September 7th, 2014

Alison Gillespie‘s passion for urban ecology is quite clear–her writing career focuses on how to marry nature and the city. For FringeArts, she’s stopping by WetLand today to discuss urban beekeeping, and to read from her most excellent book, Hives in the City: Keeping Honey Bees Alive in an Urban World.

HivesInTheCityHow did you become interested in beekeeping?
I am not a beekeeper myself. I’m a gardener who is passionate about making American backyards more friendly and hospitable to all kinds of wild animals and insects. I also write about ecology for a living. Like everyone else, I was horrified by the news of Colony Collapse Disorder and reports of the bees disappearing from our landscape. I was also aware that the honey bees would only be appearing in my backyard if there was a beekeeper living near my house. I kept wondering who that person was, and where in my urban area they were keeping their bees. I felt a huge sense of gratitude to that person, and felt as if I was connected to them in this really powerful way. Every time I saw bees in my backyard my heart was filled with great joy.

At the same time, I also began to realize that a lot of people in my life were becoming beekeepers, including stay-at-home parents, lawyers, construction guys – even my dental hyginist! Some of them had hives in really surprising locations in the city. I wanted to know what was motivating them, and I began conducting some interviews. The more I talked to this interesting and diverse group the more I realized the story of what was happening to the bees was as much about humans and our relationship with food, nature and our local ecosystem as it was about the insects.

Why do you specialize in urban ecology specifically? Why is it important to cultivate nature in city settings? In your own life, how do you balance city life and a passion for wildlife and nature?

I am a person who really loves the diversity and vibrancy of urban places. I hated growing up in the suburbs. They were boring as hell, and culturally stifling. They also seemed to be full of people who were determined to spray huge amounts of chemicals all over their yards, and the more I learned about the importance of giving butterflies, birds and bees an organic habitat, the more I hated living in places where the grass was unnaturally lush and green while the flowers were empty. I seemed to find a happy medium in older, urbanized places – those that were maybe still a bit rough around the edges, and maybe a bit less prosperous. I realized that the city was a much better place to live when I could find a neighborhood full of trees and near a park.

I do not think this is uncommon among those who think of the environmental big picture. It is wonderful to have a short commute via public transportation, to renovate and recycle old buildings and make them new, and avoid being a part of suburban sprawl. If you can have a small environmental footprint and consume less but still live with access to green space, you really can have a more balanced lifestyle. City neighborhoods near parks are always the ones everyone covets.

I set out to show others how to add green spaces to their lives – either by planting some things in containers on their tiny patios or by improving their small city lots. You won’t necessarily save an endangered species by gardening that way. But I think that we as humans are predisposed to need time outdoors interacting with nature on a daily basis. So maybe if we make cities more livable, people won’t be as apt to think they need to move farther out just to get that daily dose of “green goodness.” This could reduce energy consumption, decrease pollution by cars, and maybe even reduce sprawl. Improving our access to green space is a really key component of “smart growth.”

Plus, there’s something really cool about finding some ways that nature ultimately prevails over the concrete and the grime. To find a butterfly on a window box downtown or see a bird land on the girder of a bridge can make one feel a real sense of universal connection in an otherwise impersonal and dead landscape. Wouldn’t it be great to give everyone that experience while giving wildlife a bit more room to thrive, too?

What is the greatest obstacle to urban beekeeping right now? What are your suggestions to combat it?

In many cities, beekeeping became illegal in the 1980s, when fears about so-called “killer bees” were fueled by fictional and sensationalized movie plots. Here in the Mid-Atlantic overly aggressive strains of bee are not an issue and really never have been.

For more than three and half centuries – since colonists brought bees with them from Europe – cities like Philadelphia and New York have had thriving apiaries. In the beginning, honey bees were raised to provide a less expensive alternative to sugar and access to wax for candles. As humans’ knowledge of pollination increased, they were also valued for helping to increase the harvest in backyard gardens. This remained true even until World War II, when patriotic Americans turned their lawns into food plots. Then, after the war as the suburbs flourished and air pollution increased in the city, both gardens and bees began to disappear in our cities. In a lot of locations, people began to think of bees as pests instead of beneficial helpers. Legislation was sometimes put into place without anyone even knowing it had been done.

Now, as cities seek to end so-called “food deserts” – those places where people lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables – policy makers are encouraging the growing of food crops in urban locations. Anti-beekeeping laws are making it hard for beekeepers to set up hives where they might be most beneficial to gardeners.

Pesticide use is also a big issue for beekeepers everywhere, especially because the new class of systemic chemicals known as neonicotinoids (or “neonics”) which can have very long lasting impacts.

Combatting those problems is something everyone can help with by speaking out in favor of bees and avoiding pesticides. Avoiding plants –- even flowers — that have been treated with chemicals is also very important. It is also really helpful to purchase of organic produce whenever possible, despite its sometimes higher cost.

How do you think your book Hives in the City ties into the goals and values of WetLand?

I think the rising water levels associated with climate change will force us to reconcile lots of issues we currently ignore as a society. Where will we grow our food in urban areas that have become overwhelmed with constant flooding? If we decide to go vertical, as many urban planners have suggested we should, how will we provide pollination for those urban farm sky scrapers? It may come to pass that those who currently keep bees in locations such as on top of hotels and other high buildings in our downtown areas will have a lot of advice to impart. But also, it seems to me that WetLand is asking us to rethink our cities, and so are many urban beekeepers.

What do you hope to impart to the audience at your book reading on WetLand?

I hope to impart a sense of hope and a need for urgent action. Even those who live in cities are able to save bees and make space for all kinds of pollinators. Those pollinators play a huge role in the well-being of our ecosystem. The crisis of the bees is not happening in some distant farm field far away from here. It is happening on your plate, right in front of your face, and out the window of your urban apartment. It is unfurling in city parks and along the trees that line shopping centers malls and grocery stores. We need to all stand up for bees, NOW, and help those who are working to give them a chance to thrive. The struggle of the bees is a message for us. If we don’t heed that message we humans will soon struggle, too. We can no longer take the most basic aspects of our planet for granted. We need to pay attention and get our act together.

Alison Gillespie reads from her book at 1:00 pm at WetLand, Independence Seaport Museum Pier, 211 S. Columbus Blvd. Free!