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 22 2013: From the Carvalheiro paper, "Natural and within farmland biodiversity enhances crop productivity," we read how increased plant diversity has a positive correlation with flower pollination and distancing from "natural habitats" working vice-versa. Data from Wilson-Rich's TEDtalk states that urban bees have higher honey yield than do country bees. I would then be led to believe Carvalheiro's "natural habitats" are simply referring to non-agricultural land, gaining support from general dispersal patterns, which hypothesize alpha-diversity will be greater within urban areas than rural. If "natural habitat" referred to areas uninhabited by humans or one with a close representation of once native species, we could expect to see no difference in urban and rural bee honey production -- I think in scientific context "natural" is WAY to ambiguous to be used as a general term... just had to get that off my chest.

    Nevertheless, this idea of "natural habitat" vs. "high-plant-diversity habitat" in regards to pollination and honey-production rates brings about another question: are high honey-production rates in urban areas a result of more than just high biodiversity and would urban bee-keeping significantly increase pollination rates?

    If bees produce honey as a food reserve, could the increased honey production in cities be result of environmental factors greater than high biodiversity? Affects of global warming heat cities faster than rural areas and seasonality of fresh food-sources in cities will not be the same as that of a "natural" habitat and probably greater; so therefore, I would think, less reason to store food reserves. Also, I would assume that in areas with more non-native species (i.e. cities), nectar robbing could likely be more common reducing the ratio of flowers pollinated to honey produced. So not that I dislike the idea of urban honey bees, but I see a chance overall affects to food production could yield diminishing returns.

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