How A Rise In Backyard Beekeeping Can Help Teach City-Dwellers About Climate Change


Pavel Snejnevski showed up to the parking lot in Northeast D.C. in a gray suit and tie. He’d be returning to work later that afternoon, but now he had a more pressing task, one for which he was willing to brave the unseasonably cold May rain in his work clothes: to pick up the box of bees he’d ordered earlier this year so he could install them at his friend’s house in Woodley Park.

Snejnevski, a psychotherapist who lives in Georgetown, was one of steady stream of city beekeepers of a range of ages and experience levels who showed up that Wednesday to pick up their bees. The beekeepers, most of whom live within the city’s limits, join a group of urban and suburban beekeepers whose numbers have been growing rapidly over the last few years as local food movements gain traction and the plight of bees attracts more attention and concern.

“There’s a tremendous interest in beekeeping now,” said Wayne Esaiais, a beekeeper and lead scientist at NASA’s HoneyBee Net. “People are worried about bees and what their difficulties imply for the rest of the ecology.”

CREDIT: Katie Valentine
CREDIT: Katie Valentine

From 2008 to 2013, the number of urban beekeepers has tripled in London, and New York City, which legalized urban beekeeping in 2010, has also seen a jump in beekeepers. The rise in urban and suburban beekeepers could be good news for bee populations, which have taken a turn for the worst over the last few years.


Though a recent federal report found fewer honeybees died last winter than the winter before, bee populations are still struggling. As one entomologist told the New York Times, the newly-released bee numbers show bee losses have gone “from horrible to bad” and that there was no way to tell why the bee population had a slight rebound last winter — or whether the upward trend will continue. And in some states, bee populations have shown no improvement, and have even dipped lower than the national average. In Ohio, for instance, county bee inspectors reported losses of 50 to 60 percent over the winter.

Dramatic declines in bee populations is bad news for the country’s crops. According to the USDA, one-third of all food and beverages consumed in the U.S. are dependent on pollination of some sort, with key crops such as almonds and squash depending most heavily on bees.

That’s where the rise in home beekeeping plays an important role. It won’t solve the bee die-offs problem — huge numbers of commercialized bees are needed to pollinate some of the nation’s most important crops, and backyard beekeeping won’t help much with that — but it helps overall bee numbers. And there’s an added benefit: beekeeping is doing a lot to teach city and suburban dwellers about bees, the importance of green space and pollinator-attracting plants, and how climate change’s effects on seasons is adding to the threats the insects face.

“What we have is most of our population living in cities,” said Hartmut Doebel, assistant professor at George Washington University and head of the school’s beekeeping and bee research program. “So if we can promote beekeeping in the cities and create a little bit more awareness about what these critters need and what harms them, I think we are really making the best use of this bee model to educate large numbers of people.”

Bees and Climate Change

Many new beekeepers were turned on to the practice after learning of the dangers bees were facing from pesticides and disease. But Toni Burnham, who’s been keeping bees in D.C. since 2005 and leads the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance, says becoming a beekeeper forces you to tap in to climatic changes as well.


In 2005, she said, her bees would arrive on April 9, a date that gave beekeepers enough time to install their hives and get their bees settled in before key trees — the tulip poplar and black locust — began to bloom. Now, in 2014, her bees were delivered May 7, a full month later. The black locusts were already blooming — bad news for the bees, which need time to settle into their new hives and would likely miss the peak foraging period for the black locusts.

“It’s incredibly difficult to know anything anymore,” Burnham said.

At NASA’s HoneyBee Net, Esaias is working with beekeepers across the U.S. to track changes in nectar flow as the climate warms. So far, data from Maryland suggest that peak nectar flow — the period of time where trees are in peak bloom, providing the most nectar for foraging bees — occurs almost four weeks earlier than it did in 1970. That early bloom impacts the health of hives, Esaias said, because on the East Coast, bees depend on a few weeks of tree bloom to get the bulk of their nectar for the year. If bees miss the peak foraging time, the overall health of the hive is weakened.

Honey Bee Net’s scale hives, which help track nectar flow changes throughout the Eastern U.S. Active hives are in red, inactive are in blue. CREDIT: VIIRS, NASA, Pete Ma (GSFC)
Honey Bee Net’s scale hives, which help track nectar flow changes throughout the Eastern U.S. Active hives are in red, inactive are in blue. CREDIT: VIIRS, NASA, Pete Ma (GSFC)

“When the winters get warmer, and the trees bloom earlier, our colonies are weaker going into the nectar flow, and therefore they can’t collect enough,” he said.

These climatic changes add to the stress that bees are already under, due to mite and disease outbreaks and pesticide exposure.

“Much like people in high stress situations, their health suffers, they’re not as in good shape, and then they can get disease and die,” Esaias explained.

The summers just keep changing, and they aren’t getting any better

Mischa Hall, a data mining analyst who started keeping bees in D.C. last year, said the unpredictability of the seasons — even in the one year she’s been keeping bees — have made keeping her hive alive difficult.


“This year our winter was so harsh and the spring started later than normal, so everything was in bloom at once, as opposed to having things go in succession,” she said. “Everything started blooming immediately. It was like everyone had nothing to eat and then it went on steroids.”

Hall said that last year, her hive didn’t survive the winter. This year she’s trying again with two hives, and hopes the winter is milder. And the challenges don’t end with winter. Soochon Radee, a software engineer who’s been keeping bees in D.C. for three years, said the weather has been different every year since he started beekeeping.

“The summers just keep changing, and they aren’t getting any better,” he said. “I really worry about whether or not there’s enough rain to keep my plants and flowers healthy enough for bees to come.”

Eve Bratman, assistant professor at American University and faculty adviser for American’s Beekeeping Society, said a changing climate could force the U.S. to turn to other breeds of honeybees — rather than the ever-popular Italian breed, which is most commonly used in U.S. hives, both commercial and personal — in order to keep crops pollinated.

“In the age of climate change, we are increasingly needing stronger breeds of bees,” she said, adding that she thinks investing in these stronger bees could be as important as keeping bees locally. And as seasons change around the country, Bratman said beekeepers will need to look to other regions to see how they raise their bees — a beekeeper in D.C., for instance, could learn a lot from beekeepers in Canada and the Midwest about how to keep bees alive during a harsh winter.

In the city, though, humans’ careful attention to their lawns and gardens may protect honeybees from some of the impacts of climate change. Drought, for instance, likely won’t hit bees as hard in the city, because water restrictions don’t usually kick in until the most severe levels of drought.

City Living

Urban beekeepers aren’t just learning about how environmental changes are impacting the bees they tend — they’re also giving bees a fairly good chance of survival, as long as they’ve done their homework on how to care for their hive. It may not seem like the ideal environment in which to keep bees, with constant traffic, pollution and the risk of nervous neighbors, but bees have been shown to thrive in the city.

In urban areas, Doebel said, fervent gardeners ensure that there’s always something blooming, and bees can be very adaptable to the different flower types. Doebel said he’s seen bees getting nectar out of an opuntia cactus in a garden, a plant that’s certainly not native to the East Coast but that still was able to provide the bees sustenance.

“We know that plant species diversity is way way lower in the rural environments,” he said. “In any point in time, there may be a few [flowers] that are very abundant, or there may be none.”

One of George Washington University’s rooftop bee hives. CREDIT: Katie Valentine
One of George Washington University’s rooftop bee hives. CREDIT: Katie Valentine

Doebel is putting together a study now looking at quality of food sources for bees in rural versus urban environments. The unpublished findings are that there’s higher protein content in the city than there is in the country, due to the wide variety of pollen sources in the city. Pollen is a protein source for bees, while nectar is a carbohydrate, so more sources of pollen lead to healthier bees. In contrast, a bee raised commercially may get the bulk of its nutrition from the almond or cherry crop that they’re shipped across the country to pollinate. Compared to the city, Doebel said rural bees have to contend with an “impoverished agricultural environment,” where widespread monoculture means a bee’s entire three-or-so-mile radius can be dominated by fields of one or two crops.

One study Doebel conducted also found that there are fewer neonicotinoid pesticides in the city as compared to the country, though Doebel said he would need to replicate the study and send samples to more labs in order to confirm those findings. Jeff Pettis, research leader at the USDA’s bee research laboratory in Maryland, said his lab has done some research on whether urban, suburban or rural bees experience the most exposure to pesticides, but results have been murky — it wasn’t clear whether there was a difference among the three environments.

Neonics, a class of pesticides that are used widely in industrial agriculture, have emerged as a strong contender for the leading cause of colony collapse disorder over the years. One of the latest studies, done by researchers from Harvard, pointed to neonic exposure as the main driver of bee losses. The pesticides, which are used on corn, soybeans, oranges, leafy greens, tomatoes and a range of other crops, have been found to damage bees’ brains, impacting their memory and making them forget what food smells like and forget how to get back to their hives.

This impact on memory could explain one of the most baffling aspects of colony collapse disorder — that the bees don’t die in or around their hives, but simply disappear. Doebel said bees can be easily trained to remember what colors and shapes in a lab yield a sugar water reward, an intelligence that makes the effects of neonics all the more sobering.

Facing the Challenges

Even in the city and suburbs, however, beekeepers can’t escape some of the worst of what’s plaguing bees. Basically every beekeeper, Doebel said, gets varroa mites, parasites that latch themselves to bees and suck out their circulatory fluid (the bees’ equivalent to blood). The mites are small, but not in bee terms. Doebel said on a human scale, a varroa mite infestation would mean mites the size of grapefruits attaching themselves people and sucking their blood. The mites weaken bees and spread diseases, including the deformed wing virus, which results in crumpled up, useless wings in young bees.

A varroa destructor mite on a recently-hatched drone bee. CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons
A varroa destructor mite on a recently-hatched drone bee. CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

Controlling varroa mite populations is tough, Doebel said; there are a few ways to try to keep bees free of the mites, but none of them are completely successful. In an effort to limit his use of chemical miticides, which can contaminate honey if used incorrectly and can lead to the mite population developing a resistance to the chemicals, Doebel brushes his bees with powdered sugar, which triggers their grooming instinct. As they groom themselves to get rid of the sugar, the bees dislodge the mites that have latched on to their bodies. The method has been shown to be at least partially successful in combating varroa mites. Doebel’s tests have shown that higher numbers of mites fall down into the sticky traps in the bottom of the hive after the powdered sugar treatment than when he doesn’t treat the bees.

Doebel has also used fumigants to try to rid George Washington University’s hives of mites, but that treatment can be tricky — use too much, he warned, and you could kill the bees in your hive.

But as far as the long-term health of bee populations, there isn’t a quick fix. The EU placed a two-year ban on three classes of neonics last April, a move that was heralded by environmental groups and strengthened calls for a similar ban in the U.S.

Doebel said he thinks Europe’s use of the precautionary principle — the idea that if we have any doubt of a chemical or practice’s safety, we should stop using it first and then study it further, rather than build up years of research and then try to decide whether to ban it — was a good step, but he’s worried that the two-year ban won’t provide enough proof that neonics are contributing to the decline in bee health. The pesticides are persistent, so two years probably isn’t enough time for them to make their way out of the environment, meaning bees could continue to come in contact with them throughout the two-year moratorium and may still show signs of ill health after the ban runs out.

Still, Doebel said, a similar ban in the U.S. would make sense, though it’s probably not likely to occur anytime soon. Chemical makers have lobbied fiercely against bans on neonics, which they say aren’t to blame for bee die-offs.

“If we have only the slightest bit of suspicion that if a modern insecticide could be the cause, I think we should stop as a society and start looking at it,” Doebel said. “Here, we need to always have more evidence, more proof, and so the cautionary principle that seems to be sometimes showing up in Europe … does not show up here very easily.”

In hopes of boosting bee populations, Pettis of the USDA bee lab said the USDA was working to increase flower diversity in agricultural environments so that bees have more sources of pollen. Some large-scale beekeepers are also starting to take bees that are shipped out to pollinate certain crops, like almonds in California, on a “rest period” after their pollination tour, where they can spend a few weeks foraging in a flower-filled field to regain the nutrients they may not have gotten from foraging from a single crop for several weeks.

“If bees have a diverse source of pollen — like a lot of different types of flowers — wherever they are, they always do better,” Pettis said.

And though honeybee populations are facing some major challenges, Doebel emphasized that as more people take up beekeeping in cities, suburbs or rural areas, awareness of how humans impact the health of bees and other pollinators is spread. When someone becomes a beekeeper, they start seeing the world in terms of how their actions affect bees.

“We grow our gardens differently, we really think about whether to use fertilizer or not, what gets washed off into the waterways, those kind of things,” he said. Having city bees makes a slight difference in terms of bee populations, but “it also raises the awareness, and that’s what we need.”