TED Conversations

Carly Otis

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Can urban beehives increase food production?

It has been estimated that somewhere between fifty and ninety percent of the colonies of bees in US beekeeping operations have collapsed from a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This disorder is characterized by the disappearance of bees from a colony, but a lack of dead bodies to explain where they went. Some scientists believe that the culprit is a virus known as the Israeli acute paralysis virus (Cox-Foster et al, 2007). CCD is causing the collapse of bee colonies all over the world, reducing pollination rates, and causing essential food sources to become more scarce and more expensive. Noah Wilson-Rich, a scientist who studies bee diseases, has suggested an easy solution to the problem: urban beekeeping. In his Ted Talk “Every City Needs Healthy Honey Bees”, Wilson-Rich shares that bees are actually surviving better in urban environments than rural ones. He suggests that increasing the number of urban beehives, along with introducing green roofs and urban gardens, will allow food production to begin to increase (while also reducing the prices of many crops). In many cities in the United States it is illegal to have a beehive because people are allergic and/or afraid of bees, but in some countries urban beekeeping is thriving (Paris, France is a great example!). 

Do you think it is possible for the United States to develop an urban beekeeping industry? Would it have enough of a positive outcome to outweigh the downsides of urban beehives?



Closing Statement from Carly Otis

After much conversation, I think it is safe to say that most people think that urban beehives will have a positive influence on honey bee populations and biological diversity in urban environments. However, many people pointed out that this will not solve the issue of colony collapse disorder that is facing bees. Much more research needs to be done to determine what the true culprit of this phenomenon is (possibilities are neonicotinoid pesticides, varroa mites, Israeli acute paralysis virus, etc), but in the meanwhile urban beehives can help to maintain populations. It was mentioned a few times throughout the conversation that many people will be opposed to the introduction of urban beehives due to the rather large portion of our society that is afraid of and/or allergic to bees. To get around this, many people suggested that schools implement some sort of program to teach the public that honey bees are actually nothing to be afraid of, and that they will only harm you if you harm them. In addition, keeping beehives in places that are out of public view will help to alleviate some issues relating to neighborly disputes and accidental stings. One good technique is to place hives on rooftops, which will force bees to fly at a higher elevation and reduce the amount of bee-human interactions. Another issue with urban beekeeping is that there are much fewer food resources for bees in urban environments than rural ones, so it was decided that an urban beekeeping industry will only be successful in places where urban gardens and/or green roofs are also successful. Overall, it sounds like urban beekeeping has a good chance in the U.S., as long as we begin to educate people about honey bees and how critical they are for food production.

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    May 21 2013: It is relatively well-known that bees are also declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation. In some very dense cities, such as New York and San Francisco, it would be incredibly interesting to see a city-wide project done where a certain neighborhood or grouping of city blocks would agree to create green roofs (maybe through some subsidized funds) that incorporated urban food growth and native bee habitat to try and mimic a continuous landscape. Placing the habitats on roofs, particularly at higher elevations in some cities, may encourage involvement from those that fear they could be harmed. Of course, I am not familiar with bees’ preferred elevation, so some strategy would have to go into that. In cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C., the cities are already providing some incentives through tax subsidies to encourage people to begin green roof projects (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/17/dining/17roof.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0). It would be great to take some of that interest and those funds to look into urban beekeeping and this potential idea of creating a continuous landscape in some areas of town. Of course there would be some fragmentation with the presence of the gaps in roads, but this may be a case where something is better than nothing.
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      May 21 2013: I thought it was interesting that among pesticides, two of the most common contributors to CCD are stresses related to environment change/fragmentation and "migratory beekeeping". Apparently, natural pollinators come nowhere near close to supporting US agriculture on their own. To solve this, professional US beekeeping companies rent out their hives, so that one hive might spend January in California, March in Washington, and May in North Dakota. Beekeepers actually make more money from hive rentals than they do from honey production. However, some research has shown that moving hives all over the country contributes to the spread of mites and viruses between colonies, not to mention the stress that moving places on the hive. I'm not sure what the pollination range of bees is, but I like the idea of placing bee habitats on roofs in cities that are near locations that need extra pollination help (such as near almond trees in California). Then the bees would be kept a bit out of the way of normal foot traffic, but the entire hive wouldn't need to be uprooted every couple of months, hopefully lessening the spread of diseases between colonies.

      Source: Alexi Barrionuevo (27 February 2007). "Honeybees, Gone With the Wind, Leave Crops and Keepers in Peril". New York Times.
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        May 22 2013: Phoebe, this seemed like an excellent idea to me, but then I thought about the negative impacts that putting a beehive on a roof might have. The one downside I can think of would be the heat. As many roofs are shingled, it gets REALLY hot on sunny days. I think then colonies would have to constantly have many bees fanning the hive to try and circulate the hot air out of the hive. This would be energy that could instead be used for pollination instead of thermoregulation.

        Maybe instead of roofs, you could hangs beeboxes from trees? Now I don't know if this would anger the bees because their hives would be moving up and down every few days or so. It also poses the risk of beehives falling from the tree.
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        May 22 2013: It's also interesting that commercially managed honeybee colonies really cannot compensate for the loss of native pollinator communities.... Carvalheiro et al (2011) showed that the productivity of sunflower field was very much dependent on the proximity of natural habitat and on the diversity of the pollinating insects... but totally independent from the distance to managed colonies! Ann brought up a good point in discussion yesterday, which is that displaced and commercially managed honeybees may just be inherently less effective pollinators when introduced to an unfamiliar ecosystem.
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      May 22 2013: I actually found a few articles that talked about locating beehives on roofs to alleviate some of the dangers that people associate with bees. Since these 'dangers' have been exaggerated so much, beekeepers tend to try to keep their hives out of view even though the bees actually pose little to no threat at all. The idea of keeping bee hives on roofs not only keeps the hives out of sight, but it also forces the bees to fly at a higher elevation, preventing any kind of interaction with humans that might result in a sting.

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        May 22 2013: I stand corrected.
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          May 22 2013: Haha, only a little. It seems that overheating of the hive is a big concern for rooftop beekeepers, but it can be easily managed as long as you're able to provide some kind of shade for the hive (something like an umbrella would work nicely), and an adequate supply of water.

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