Can Urban Beekeeping Projects Save Our Food System? Foodie Underground

Can Urban Beekeeping Projects Save Our Food System? Foodie Underground

ColumnIn the face of colony collapse disorder, can urban beekeeping projects help us save bees, and our food system?

Did you know that 70 out of the top 100 food crops that humans consume — which are responsible for supplying about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition — are pollinated by bees? As Greenpeace puts it, “You have a bee to thank for every one in three bites of food you eat.” This is one of the main reasons that people are so concerned about the dwindling numbers of honeybees.

Bee populations are decreasing at an alarmingly high rate. Because of pesticides and habitat loss, in the United States alone, since 1962, the number of bees per hectare has gone down by 90 percent for these important crops.

The question is: what do we do? Banning dangerous pesticides is an essential part of the solution, but beyond signing petitions, for the most of us, that’s something that’s out of our control. What is in our control? Many people have taken to beekeeping.

Nowadays, there are urban beekeeping projects popping up from Hong Kong to Stockholm to Tokyo. And it’s not just bees that they are promoting; often these projects incorporate unique methods of doing business that bring both a social and environmental good. For example, in Seattle, the Urban Bee Co. is the nation’s first bicycle-centered honey producer, and all its honey deliveries are pedal-powered. Not to mention that honey is an incredibly local crop, and for people looking to reduce their food miles, honey is a way to do just that.

It has been argued that urban beekeeping is actually detrimental to bee populations, as in many areas, there has been a loss of flowers and habitat. This is often on account of urbanization, which removes both potential nesting sites for bees, as well as their food sources, making pairing beekeeping projects with planting projects essential. And that means greening cities, providing bees with what they lack: food. A great example is Pollinator Passasjen, a Norwegian initiative to encourage people to plant bee-friendly plants, like flowers, as well as insect hotels.

Unfortunately, the reality is that if bees keep dying at the current rate, urban hives come far under being a replacement for the commercial variety. But that doesn’t mean we should forget about urban beekeeping projects. On the contrary, while they may make a small impact on the larger agricultural scale, on the smaller, more local scale there’s a lot of potential, because while it may seem like bees would prefer a more rural, bucolic setting for their pollinating action, research has actually shown not only higher survival rates in urban bees versus rural bees, but also high yields of honey.

The success of bees in urban areas does point to the fact that in these areas, in conjunction with more green roofs and urban gardens, beekeeping projects might just be an essential part of the solution for addressing food security, by helping to increase local food production.

But when we are thinking about solutions to a more sustainable world of food production, it also comes down to one essential thing: dealing with toxic pesticides that are causing these problems in the first place. This has been highlighted yet again by a recent Harvard Study which concluded that, “The results from this study not only replicate findings from the previous study, but also reinforce the conclusion that the sublethal exposure to neonicotinoids is likely the main culprit for the occurrence of CCD.”

The most heavily used class of insecticides in the U.S., those neonicotinoids aren’t just impacting bee health, many scientists say that they post a threat to human health as well. Designed to target an insect’s nervous system, these pesticides have now been shown that they may have an affect on the human nervous system as well, affecting brain development. That’s alarming given the trace amounts of the pesticides that have been shown to appear in food. In one study done on neonicotinoids in food, 90 percent of honey samples tested detected positive for at least one neonicotinoid, as well as 72 percent of fruits and 45 percent of vegetables.

More research is needed, but paired with the destruction of bee populations, the argument against these pesticides is strong.

So what do we do?

We continue to advocate for more sustainable farming practices. We buy organic. We buy local. We boycott Big Ag. We don’t use pesticides in our own gardens. We support more urban beekeeping projects as well as initiatives that build more habitat and food for bees. We plant more native species. Urban hives may not solve the problem of colony collapse disorder, but it does get more people talking about it, and part of the solution — whatever the problem — comes with creating awareness. And if we want to build a more sustainable food system, we have to do exactly that.

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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at

Image: Mosaic Family

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.