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.

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.

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.

In a world of industrial agriculture, bees find a greater variety of sources for honey production in cities.

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 ofWorcester 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.

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.

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.”