Beekeeping started as a New Year’s resolution for Lynetta Miller.
“I decided that every year I was going to learn something new,” explains Miller. When she rang in the New Year in 2010, she decided to try beekeeping.
“Nobody I knew kept bees. It was just something that sounded kind of cool, ” says Miller. What started as an experiment turned into a profession. Miller is now vice president of Burgh Bees, an organization that introduces the public to bees, beekeeping and acting as stewards of the environment. Miller is also an urban beekeeper who keeps her hive at the Burgh Bees community apiary in Homewood.
Urban beekeeping may sound like an oxymoron, but for several hundred homes in the Pittsburgh area, it’s a reality.
The urban beekeeping movement is steadily growing in Pittsburgh but has slowed due to permitting. That could soon change. With a city ordinance allowing more lenient permitting likely to pass at the end of the month, it looks like the buzz will only get louder.
“Beekeepers tend to be shy,” explains Steve Repasky, president of Burgh Bees. “We don’t broadcast ‘Hey, we’re keeping these insects in our backyard!’ We’re certainly happy to educate and tell people about it, but we don’t typically go out and say ‘There are bees here and here and there.’”
A city ordinance was passed in 2010 making it more difficult for Pittsburghers to have urban agriculture on their properties. As it stands now, the process is restrictive, including expensive application costs, public hearings and posting large orange zone hearing signs, similar to a restaurant applying for a liquor license.
The sign often attracts the wrong attention, and leads to neighbors complaining to the city, resulting in a denial of the permit for the aspiring beekeeper without a refund of the application fees. “This sent the whole thing [urban agriculture] underground. There were a lot of people keeping chickens and bees that were not permitted,” says Repasky.
With a new ordinance in the works, beekeepers will be able to apply for a permit that costs only $70 instead of the current $250, and the zoning hearing will be bypassed if the applicants’ properties meet guideline standards. Repasky believes the simpler process will encourage more beekeepers to register hives with the city.
Even without the hearing process, Repasky encourages applicants to talk to neighbors and explain that they’ll be putting in hives. “It comes down to education on our [the beekeeper’s] part. If we speak to our neighbors, and they’re okay with it, then we have nothing to fear.”
He reminds us: “Honeybees pollinate over one-third of the fruits and vegetables we eat.”
Since 2006, bees have been experiencing an alarming yearly decline of 35%. The so-called colony collapse disorder, notes Wikipedia “is significant economically because many agricultural crops (although no staple foods) worldwide are pollinated by European honey bees.” Shortages of bees in the US have increased the cost to farmers renting them for pollination services by up to 20%.” (Read more about colony collapse disorder here.)
That’s where Burgh Bees comes in. The nonprofit aims to educate the public and beekeepers about how to encourage sustainable agriculture in Pittsburgh and the suburbs.
Community members have a chance to interact with the hives at the Community Apiary during beginner “Bee Curious” sessions and monthly Open Apiary tours. During the tours, visitors don veils and gloves to get a firsthand look at the bee colonies at work.
“We take them into the hives and show them a working beehive,” says Repasky. “We let them see that just because you’re in front of a hive with 30,000 bees in it doesn’t mean they all come out angry and stinging you.”
While bees will sting, it’s important to understand why, explains Repasky. “It’s no different than an electrician getting shocked because he’s not paying attention, or a carpenter smashing his thumb because he’s not paying attention, there are hazards of the job. It’s just all what we perceive as being scary.”
Recently, Repasky had a group of 30 elementary school students visit the Community Apiary. “Kids are fearless, but when you have that many kids around, and they’re not getting stung, that says a lot.”
Kevin Hermann, Executive Chef at The Porch at Schenley, echoes the sentiment. “[Farm to table] drives my food and drives my menu; a lot of people are extremely surprised. If I go talk to a table and I say ‘we have four beehives, their eyes widen like ‘What? How is that possible?’ That’s really unique, and it really drives home the fact that I try to keep everything made from scratch.”
Hermann has kept hives on the roof of The Porch for several years now. “I have gained a new-found respect for raw, unfiltered honey. As a chef, I’ve always loved honey, but actually getting to see the process happening, it’s been amazing.”
Since it’s so readily available, Hermann has had the opportunity to experiment with fresh honey on the menu. “It’s like jet fuel for my brain in the culinary world.” Diners can expect honey infused bread and pizza dough, truffle honey and cheese plates adorned with fresh honeycomb.
“It’s been a good experience teaching my culinary and my front of house team about what raw honey is, and what you can do with the honeycomb.” When Hermann harvests the combs, he brings them down to The Porch’s dining room to host live tastings.
While educating others is an important aspect of keeping hives, Repasky admits he still has a lot to learn. “It seems like every time I’ve got a grasp on beekeeping something happens and I have more questions and continue to be fascinated.”
“[Beekeeping is] closer to a fish tank. All you get to do is watch them and feed them. You have to enjoy the biology of it,” explains Jana Thompson, an eight-year veteran beekeeper on the Northside. The bees operate as a super organism, or a single unit, making them an interesting subject to observe.
Thompson started keeping bees after reading about them and studying them for over a year. While the harvest is rewarding, the process of keeping the bees is just as valuable to her.
“This is something where I know I am doing good. I am making the world a better place in a way that is very different from all the other things I do.”
While it might not be for everybody, anyone can contribute to making urban beekeeping a success. “It’s all voting with your food dollars,” explains Thompson. “Support local, organic growers. All of that is supporting urban beekeeping.” You can find urban honey at farmers’ markets or local grocery stores.
You can also get involved by attending Burgh Bees’ Open Apiary on Saturday, June 27.
All photos by Brian Cohen.