DR. JANE DENNISON'S HONEYBEES WAKE up around 10:30 AM in late September.
They won’t fly if it’s too cold and, lately, mornings have been brisk. The little insects—smaller and less fuzzy than their wild relatives, the bumblebees—exit a large, fragrant wooden box out of a little slit at its base and then fly off to forage for pollen. Some likely fly over the houses of relatively suburban East Providence, cross the Seekonk River, and enter Providence’s East Side. Anywhere within two miles is foraging territory. They cross the irrelevant property lines, city limits, and zoning boundaries that demarcate commercial, residential, and agricultural space. In the median strip of Blackstone Boulevard they forage the flowering trees and ground flowers. In the backyards of East Side residents they find pollen in flowerbeds and bushes. They stuff their corbiculae, the little sacks on their back legs, with the pollen of plants—Asian, American, African, European—and head back to the hive with the world in their pockets.
“NATURE, EXCEPT IN A SURVIVING landscape park, is scarcely to be found near the metropolis,” wrote historian Lewis Mumford. But, for the honeybee, a species whose decline has been greatly publicized, the artificial world of the city is not so inhospitable an environment. According to a 2010 compilation of data by New York City Department of Parks employees Fiona Watt and Bram Gunther, 27 percent of the land area in the average American city is covered with tree canopy. That translates into about 2,000 acres of potential tree forage alone for the average urban beehive, according to trade magazine Bee Culture. The average hive, Bee Culture notes, only requires between two and 20 acres worth of pollen and nectar per year, depending on the forage material. And, besides being relatively abundant, urban forage is of high quality.
According to Dennison—an officer of the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association and pediatrician, who keeps six hives in her hometown of East Providence—many residents of the relatively affluent East Side of Providence hire landscaping firms that plant their gardens with a wide variety of flowers and flowering trees. While environmentalists may bemoan the introduction of nonnative plant species into new environments because they can unbalance ecosystems and crowd out indigenous species, Dennison notes that, as far as bees are concerned, the more horticultural diversity the better. “A simple pine or oak forest isn’t good for bees at all!” Dennison exclaimed.
Scott Langelais, an urban beekeeper who recently relocated from Providence to Johnston, agrees: “A lot of people would think that a rural environment would be better but that can actually be challenging… an urban environment can be very good because there is a wide variety of plants,” he told the Independent. James Lawson, Bee Inspector for the State of Rhode Island, called Dennison’s and Langelais’s views on the beekeeping, or “apicultural,” upsides to urban landscaping, “right on the money.” “You have a lot of different types of pollen coming in,” he said, and a varied diet is key for honeybees.
But urbanization has created some statewide problems here in Rhode Island. While the decline of crop agriculture has been something of a blessing (“there’s not a lot there for [bees],” says Lawson), the shrinking dairy industry has been another story. “In 1940 there were over 1,000 dairy farms in Rhode Island, now there are eight or ten,” says Lawson. “With dairy farms you have pastures, you have fields…[now] a lot of that forage area has left [and] the native colonies have reduced in numbers.” This despite the fact that managed colonies in greater Providence appear to be thriving—although their owners can give them supplemental food that native colonies don’t get.
In an urban context there’s also “a risk of the environment being oversaturated,” as Langelais explained. Oversaturation (also called “overstocking”) occurs when too many bees are drawing upon limited resources. “Where we were in Providence there were six or seven other beekeepers nearby, and that can create a lot of stress on the natural environment,” Langelais said. And in the absence of a regulatory framework to ensure responsible hive placement, urban bees will continue to be more susceptible than their rural counterparts to the strain imposed by beekeeping’s growing popularity.
“The idea that just buying and slapping down beehives anywhere is somehow good for all concerned,” writes Toni Burnham, a DC-based veteran beekeeper and outspoken advocate for bee-friendly laws, “is the kind of logic used by people who hoard cats.” An extra hive may be good, but an extra twelve isn’t.
The situation is further complicated because places like East Providence might provide inferior foraging because they are less affluent. According to Dennison, who has been keeping bees in East Providence for years, many locals have to do their own landscaping, resorting to a “hardier, more durable, and less varied assemblage of plants,” which translates into inferior foraging. As we stood, tending a hive together, she pointed to two houses across the street. “Those people do their own landscaping,” she said of the house on the right, and listed the handful of plant species in their yard. “But this guy,” she said, pointing to the densely planted house on the left, “hires a landscaper and planted a bunch of flowering trees.... That’s much more horticulturally dense.”
But Lawson doesn’t seem particularly concerned about East Providence’s lower rates of professional landscaping. “I don’t see any difference between landscapers or homeowners,” he said, “It’s just about being sensitive to putting up plants that are good for honeybees and native bees.” Increasingly, he observes, people are actually buying apiculture-enhancing plants, like sweet pepper bush, on their own. And while that’s great, Langlais was careful to downplay the importance of the individual piece of property to the overall environment. “Don’t overthink what you want to plant in your own yard for your bees,” he said, “because they will fly elsewhere. They are extremely efficient at finding good forage.” And when a hive’s average range covers 8,658 acres, a lot of people would have to be making the same mistake for it to become anything close to a crisis.
But even if your own backyard flowers aren’t too important for your bees, residents of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods often cannot exert influence over what is planted or what chemical treatments are used elsewhere in their city where their bees are foraging. And “the truth,” writes Toni Burnham, “is that people of less economic means are also people of less green space” in their own communities. So the people who might gain the greatest benefit from honey production are often at a distinct disadvantage in creating a good environment for it. But Providence isn’t DC.
“I don’t think that’s a problem here,” said Rich Pederson, City Farm Steward at the Southside Community Land Trust in Providence. I was prodding him for a confirmation of Burnham’s thesis, but it wasn’t going to happen. His organization’s two hives at City Farm, on the corner of West Clifford and Dudley streets, not only sit directly on a three-quarter acre farm but also have access to two parks, a cemetery, and a community garden in the immediate vicinity. And given the low density housing found most everywhere outside of Downcity, there are plenty of neighbors with flower patches. “In terms of problems,” Pederson says, “the biggest challenge with urban beekeeping [in Providence] is people’s fears of bees.”
If Providence grows and becomes denser in the future, beekeeping will probably become more complicated, but for now, the honey is flowing and one by one other Rhode Island municipalities are legalizing the little insects, bringing bees closer to home. The city is buzzing: listen.
RICK SALAME B’16 is honey, baby.