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: Partially in response to Don, I think it would be great to focus on increasing the number of pollinators in the urban environment. It is important to note that honey bees are not the only pollinator, and that focusing on only one species is a limited solution. Why not take a biodiverse approach to revitalizing pollinator populations? It seems like the CCD epidemic is such a problem precisely because we are too dependent on one species of bee.
    Also, in order for urban honey bees or other pollinators to have a significant impact on food production, we will have to re-imagine urban food production. While there are cities that feature good urban gardening programs, many cities are ill-equipped. This can be a scientific and social justice issue. For example, South-Central Los Angeles has serious pollution problems that make me skeptical about the safety of farming there. Don't people there deserve to urban farm just as much as someone in a wealthy suburb outside LA? Introducing pollinators into the urban environment is likely to be good for urban forests and other ecosystems, and has potential to help our urban food production. The second point is only true, however, if we make an effort to develop urban food production.
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      May 22 2013: Hi Don,

      How do you propose to increase the diversity of pollinators in urban environments? Would this entail introducing more non-native species? Do you know of examples where regions have developed a biodiverse pollination strategy?
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        May 22 2013: Non-native species too often become invasive species, so I would not recommend that.
        Odds are there are a lot more native pollinators around then you’re aware of, so creating a hospitable environment for them likely is the best thing to do.

        For example if you have spring flowering plant like fruit trees, placing mason bee houses is a good idea.
        I have been planting butterfly-bushes to aid the wild migrating pollinators, in the Midwest they have a long blooming season and attract/feed bees, butter flies and humming birds.
        Also bees and butterflies need a mud for nutrition, so be artist and have something to provide that for them.

        Often your local nursery and home-improvement stores know what plants and feeders do best in your zone.

        good luck and have fun with it.
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          May 22 2013: Hi Don,
          From what others have said in this conversation, it seems that making one's yard (or community) more 'pollinator-friendly' is a really good idea that can also contribute to increasing honey bee populations (as well as populations of various other species of bees). I've heard about the butterfly bushes, but do you know of any other ideas that help to make human environments more bee friendly? Thanks!
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          May 22 2013: Don, I think your mention of consulting local plat experts to determine the best plant species for different areas is crucial. Since microclimates within cities can vary, determining what plants will best support pollinators seems like the most important step when attempting to create more hospitable environments in a specific area for these organisms

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