06 Sep 2011: Report

In Berlin, Bringing Bees
Back to the Heart of the City

In Germany’s capital — and in cities as diverse as Hong Kong and Chicago — raising bees on rooftops and in small gardens has become increasingly popular, as urban beekeepers find they can reconnect with nature and maybe even make a profit.

by christian schwägerl

From the flat roof of a brick building in Berlin‘s Kreuzberg district, the German capital looks like a concrete jungle. Apartment blocks, churches, and office buildings dominate the panorama. But Erika Mayr thinks this spot is the ideal habitat for her seven bee colonies. “My bees like it very much up here,” Mayr says.

Standing at the edge of the roof, she points to an alley of lime trees lining some streets near the building. She mentions the “trees of heaven” in the neighborhood, an invasive species that loves urban heat islands and is known for its nectar-rich flowers. And she highlights some sandy wastelands that are home to flowering plants during the period critical for honey production in spring and early summer.

View photos
Berlin beekeeper

Photo by Matthias Walendy
Erica Mayr holds bees from one of her seven colonies, located on the roof a building in Berlin‘s Kreuzberg district.
Mayr grew up in rural Bavaria and now splits her life between three jobs, typical for her generation: She works in her original profession as a gardener, runs a nearby bar, and for the last few years has been producing and selling “Stadtbienenhonig” or “Berlin Citybee Honey.” Mayr, who is in her 30s, is one of the protagonists of a new trend in Berlin: raising bees. In recent years, paralleling the rise of urban farming in small gardens, keeping thousands of buzzing bees and producing one’s own honey has become very popular in this city of 3.3 million people.

Berlin is just one of many cities worldwide where beekeeping is enjoying a surge in popularity. Globally, a renaissance of beekeeping is underway as urban dwellers seek to reconnect with nature — and earn some money. In Hong Kong last year, expert product designer Michael Leung brought together local beekeepers and artists to form “HK Honey,” a company that markets honey from the city’s rooftops, rare green spots, and suburbs. In Britain, according to a recent report in The Guardian newspaper, membership of the British Beekeeping Association has doubled to 20,000 in just three years “as young, urban dwellers transform a rather staid pastime into a vibrant environmental movement.”

This renaissance taps into a culture of urban beekeeping with particularly deep historical roots in European cities. Paris at the turn of the twentieth century boasted more than 1,000 hives, and after a long decline following World War II, that number has resurged to almost 400. Some hives even claim expensive real estate, like that atop the historic Paris Opéra. For all of Germany, the beekeepers’ association reports the first increase in memberships in years, to over 40,000, following a long decline in both beekeepers and number of colonies.

In the U.S., where the number of colonies decreased from 6 million after World War II to 2.4 million today, thousands of young people are re-discovering this ancient skill. Beekeeping is still banned in many cities by “No Buzz Zones” for fear of people getting stung. But places like Detroit and Chicago are showcases of a movement to make it an integral part of the urban economy and ecology. Chicago’s city hall is home to more than 100,000 bees. With its rich patchwork of urban farms and open lots, Detroit is investigating beekeeping as a new tool for community development and economic growth. New York, where beekeeping fines once topped $2,000, lifted the ban last year, legalizing what many people had been doing for a long time.

Both environmental activists and bee researchers recognize a great potential for beekeeping to benefit from urban environments and at the same time improve them. In Britain, research by the University of
In a world of industrial agriculture, bees find a greater variety of sources for honey production in cities.
Worcester and the UK National Trust supports the notion that in a world of large-scale industrial agriculture, bees find a greater variety of sources for their honey production in cities, leading to equally diverse flavors. When scientists compared pollen sources in beehives in urban and rural locations, they saw that in cities like London, bees collect from many different plants, whereas in rural Yorkshire and in Somerset, “samples were heavily dominated by oilseed rape with little other pollen types detectable.”

“Bees today often fare better in urban environments than in contemporary farmland,” says Matthew Oates, Nature Conservation Adviser at the National Trust. Ecologist Jane Memmott from the University of Bristol, who is involved in a UK research project called the Insect Pollinators Initiative, thinks that the untapped potential of urban beekeeping is huge. “There’s a greater diversity and abundance, probably, of flowers in cities than there are in nature reserves and the countryside,” she told the BBC. Also, the flowering season is longer because cities are heat islands with an average temperature that is 2 to 3 degrees higher than in the countryside. Many city gardeners grow plants that flower very early and very late in the year, “so there is forage over a longer period of time,” says Memmot.

The most serious side of urban beekeeping is that it might sustain the colonies (and the many skills involved in keeping them) while investigators attempt to sort out the causes of so-called “colony collapse disorder,” which wiped out 35 percent of the U.S.’s honeybee population between 2006 and 2009 and has also afflicted hives in the UK and some other European countries.

Berlin’s beekeepers see themselves as part of the global renaissance. The last big boom of beekeeping in Berlin occurred immediately after World War II, when food was scarce and people tried to make a living with what was left in the ruins of Nazi Germany. Today, beekeeping is not a sign of hardship, but of a raised ecological awareness in a nation that prides itself on its recycling mania and transition to renewable energy.

View photos
Berlin Hotel Bee Colony

Photo by Christian Schwägerl
Alf Wagenzink, a chef at Berlin’s Intercontinental Hotel, examines a bee colony on the hotel’s roof.
Berlin‘s beekeeping boom recently came to public attention when two of the city’s leading hotels, the Intercontinental and the Westin Grand, installed beehives on their roofs. Many other large buildings, like the Berlin legislature’s offices, also have become home to bee colonies, though most people have not noticed it. A pro-bee initiative, “Berlin Buzz,” was recently awarded a federal grant to equip prominent buildings in Berlin with beehives. Initiatives like this inspire many city dwellers who start keeping bees in more private locations — on balconies, in backyards and on rooftops. Even kindergartens offer themselves as beehive locations. Courses for beginners to learn the many skills necessary during the “bee year” have become very popular.

Erika Mayr started to become interested in bees around 2004 through an arts project. For a competition, her architect friend Stéphane Orsolini had developed a concept about how to revitalize Detroit. It involved creating new sources of income by setting up hundreds of bee colonies on vacant lots. Mayr joined the project in 2008, but her involvement with bees didn’t end there. Rather, it changed her life. “I’ve since become a bee person,” she explains. “It really means a lot to me to connect nature and people in a city like Berlin through this fantastic product, honey.”

Although the origins of apiculture in Egypt and Greece are closely linked with cities, most people today consider the countryside as the ideal place to keep bees. But in Berlin, there are more than 400,000 trees lining the streets, many lots and gardens with flowering plants, and open spaces that offer vegetation to bees. “Pesticide use is much lower in the city than in the countryside,” Mayr says, “so urban beekeepers can offer a very clean product.“ She is proud of her honey production of 40 kilograms per colony — twice that of the countryside.

The Berlin beekeeping boom has already led to a specialized company being formed to market urban honey. The woman behind “Berliner Honig,” 34-year-old Annette Müller, said, “I see a real case for a local bee economy.
Enthusiasts complain that under German law, producers don’t need to tell consumers where honey comes from.
Berliners consume about 4,000 tons of honey each year, but mainly from sources they don’t really know.”

Müller bemoans the fact that according to German law, food producers don’t need to tell their customers where honey comes from. “Food labels will show idyllic German landscapes, but most of what people consume will be produced more industrially in places like China and brought here after long storage periods with huge CO2 emissions over long distances,” she says.

Müller wants Berliners to ask for locally produced honey and to enjoy fresh honey with distinct tastes and textures. “It really should become a product like wine and cheese, where people do appreciate when, where, how and by whom it was produced,” she says. Recently, Galeria Kaufhof and Edeka, two major supermarket companies in Berlin, started carrying “Berlin Honig” in their food sections.

Müller says about 500 beekeepers exist in Berlin today, producing 150 tons of honey. But the boom also brings with it some risks. Both Mayr and Müller are worried that people who start beekeeping as a private hobby underestimate the efforts and the responsibilities that come with it. “You can’t just leave it alone for six weeks because you lost interest or you need to go on a business trip,” Müller warns.


New Hope for Pavlovsk Station
And Russia’s Rare Plant Reserve

New Hope for Pavlovsk Station and Russia’s Rare Plant Reserve
In the early 20th century, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov created a preserve that today contains one of the world’s largest collections of rare seeds and crops. Now, scientists and conservationists are waging an international campaign to save the reserve’s fields from being bulldozed for housing development.
Varroa mites and foulbrood are of particular concern. Nothing akin to the colony collapse disorder seen in the U.S. has occurred in Germany so far, but hygiene and pest control are crucial. As bee diseases are contagious, Mayr says a lack of control could easily lead to a large number of beekeepers getting into trouble due to the negligence of only a few.

At the most fundamental level, the new generation of beekeepers in Germany’s capital believe their local honey will at least raise people’s awareness about the origins of their food. “With our honey,” says Müller, “we want to tell a story about urban biodiversity and the coexistence of people and insects in the city.”

POSTED ON 06 Sep 2011 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Forests Policy & Politics Central & South America Europe 



Still, we do need to face major problem, i.e.


This trend gives us hope. Maybe we will eventually see more endangered species being revived in cities.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 06 Sep 2011

It is great to read that beekeeping is on the rise in Berlin and globally -- including in my home town of New York City. Our local not-for-profit group, www.NYCBeekeeping.org teaches responsible urban beekeeping, provides mentorship, and more. It's inspiring to see a beekeeping renaissance in Berlin!

Posted by NYer on 06 Sep 2011

We are trying to inspire the same thing here in Los Angeles <3 HoneyLove.org

Posted by Great article! on 07 Sep 2011

For a piece on urban beekeeping in Milwaukee:

Posted by Kelly Hogan MES '95 on 08 Sep 2011

We have a diverse population of 81 species of bees in the San Francisco Bay Area (http://milliontrees.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/the-bees-of-berkeley/) according to our local bee expert, Professor Gordon Frankie (UC Berkeley). Only two species are not native bees.

Unfortunately that urban/suburban population of bees is being adversely affected by a very active native plant movement, which is determined to destroy one of the bees’ most important food sources. The non-native eucalyptus is one of the few sources of nectar during our winter months and our European honeybee population is heavily dependent upon it. (http://milliontrees.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/destruction-of-eucalyptus-threatens-bees/)

The destruction of the eucalypts is equally damaging to the native bee population because most of them nest in the ground. When the eucalypts are destroyed, they are chipped and a thick mulch of those chips is spread on the ground. The ground-nesting bees cannot penetrate this thick mulch. (http://milliontrees.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/mulch-madness-and-other-restoration-mistakes/)

Also, the herbicides that are used in our urban parks to destroy non-native vegetation is a likely factor in our local experience with Colony Collapse Disorder.

Many native plant advocates would benefit from a broader view of ecology, which might help them to understand the impact of what they are doing.

Posted by Million Trees on 08 Sep 2011

"Many native plant advocates would benefit from a broader view of ecology, which might help them to understand the impact of what they are doing."

They don't recognize a good thing when they see it. They're fixated on a perfect thing that is the enemy of the good.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 08 Sep 2011

If any bee colonies can be planted anywhere they ought to be. We need bees and they are under extreme pressure due to this CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). Scientists in the US seem to have finally isolated the disease vectors but a solution is not yet in place and losses of hives in 2010 were still at the levels of 2007 (extreme). See here for more technical info:


Posted by gume on 12 Sep 2011

Dear Environmentlists,
Four (4) broad clasess of potential causes are studied by scientists and many others around the world, i.e. Environmental NGOs and CSOs:
1. pathogens, 2. parasites, 3. environmental stresses (which includes pesticides), and 4. management stresses (including nutrition problems, mainly from nectar or pollen dearth).
Possibility of a multi-factorial cause is one of the problems that makes investigating the cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD) especially complex.

Posted by KEMO on 13 Sep 2011

where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
in pear trees, plum trees; bees
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.
"Virgil’s Bees"
Carol Ann Duffy



Posted by cassandra silver on 23 Sep 2011


Here's an interesting link describing how a parasitic fly could be a culprit behind colony collapse disorder ... just spreading the word since scientists weren't even aware that honeybees were effected by this menace until recently.

Posted by Beth Martell on 06 Jan 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
christian schwägerlABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Schwägerl, who works for the German news weekly, Der Spiegel, is an environmental journalist who has reported on science and public policy for two decades and is author of the book The Age of Men, published in German under the title Menschenzeit by Riemann/Random House. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Schwägerl wrote about a unique nature reserve being created along the spine of Germany’s former Iron Curtain and about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unlikely push for renewable energy.



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