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What’s the buzz? Urban beekeeping comes to Richmond

on February 27, 2012

Just over a year ago, an oasis blossomed in a rundown Richmond neighborhood off of Highway 580. Cars speed by on the busy freeway overhead and the Safeway Beverage packing plant, large and industrial, looms within eyesight. But here at the Self-Sustaining Communities garden, chickens peck at nubs of grass, a pair of rabbits dart in and out of their burrow, and, if you listen closely, you might hear a faint buzz. Thousands of bees flit between the nearby plants and their wooden, man-made hive in the middle of the property. Clumps of bright orange pollen cling to the bees’ swollen legs and the insects quickly disappear inside the hive, preparing to make honey from the nectar they collected.

One of the many chickens at Self-Sustaining Communities. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

As an industrial city, Richmond seems an unlikely place for farming of any sort. Yet urban beekeeping has spread throughout the Bay Area in some of the most improbable sites, with hives popping up in backyards and on rooftops everywhere from the city streets of San Francisco to the suburbs of Walnut Creek. Now, Self-Sustaining Communities founder Linda Schneider and fellow urban farmers hope to bring the buzz to Richmond.

Since November 2010, Self-Sustaining Communities has held beekeeping workshops to teach the community about preserving bees as a species and how one can reap the benefits of this hobby by collecting honey to eat or sell. For Schneider, beekeeping and urban farming are ways to give back to nature, however big or small the contribution may be. “It’s a movement toward healing not only people, but the environment,” Schneider says.

On a warm February afternoon at the garden, Schneider is showing a volunteer how to plant capers. Nearby, a construction crew is assembling an aquaponics system, a specialized greenhouse where fish provide fertilization for plants that, in turn, filter water for the fish. The garden’s worker bees are bustling in and out of the small opening of their hive, which is built out of recycled wooden boxes. The ten to 20 lbs. of bees that live in the medium-sized hive Schneider tends to are a handful to care for. But the rewards are certainly sweet. “[The honey is] so different from anything store bought,” Schneider says.

Before the garden, this land was an abandoned lot used for illegal dumping and drug dealing. Now, it’s bustling with life. Animals and plants thrive there, and the nearby apartment complex had a new wave of tenants, many of whom help out with gardening.

Linda Schneider, founder of Self-Sustaining Communities, with her rooster, Sage. Directly behind them is the garden's chicken coop and, in the distance, the vegetable beds are visible. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

Some think of the garden as a refuge, like a formerly homeless man who was key in much of the garden’s construction. He now lives nearby in an RV purchased for him by Self-Sustaining Communities and acts as a guardian for the urban farm. Many other community members come here to work off service hours or to help sustain the plants and animals that live there. As a result of this neighborhood effort, there has not been a single case of vandalism or theft since it opened, Schneider says.“Even though it’s kind of a sketchy area,” Schneider says, “the people are the ones who built it.”

In return, Schneider and other members of Self-Sustaining Communities hope to share their gardening and urban farming techniques with the city. Led by Simone Dippon, an urban farmer, the group held its first hive-building workshop in January 2011 and followed up in the spring with a swarm-catching class. Last month, they hosted another hive building class at 6th Street and MacDonald Avenue.

Although it’s relatively new to Richmond, urban beekeeping has notably expanded in recent years. Beekeeping was formerly restricted to the countryside and was even banned in many cities. But this attitude began to shift in the mid-1990s when varroa mite infestations destroyed countless colonies nationwide, says U.C. Davis professor and bee expert Eric Mussen. City dwellers took notice. Honeybees that regularly buzzed around cherry trees were nowhere to be seen and gardeners noticed irregularities among plants that required pollination, like zucchini that grew to be misshapen.

“Urban beekeeping caught on as a phenomenon as folks decided to help with the honey bee shortage,” Mussen wrote in an email. “This surge in urban beekeeping… should be of great benefit to urban gardeners.”

The bees at Richmond’s Self-Sustaining Comunities pollinate the garden’s flowers and fruit trees. But bees need a variety of pollen types to meet their daily nutritional needs and will fly as far as four miles from their hives to sample from various plants. Thus, one hive can cover an area of about 50 square miles, pollinating plants all around the Bay Area as they travel.

These bees are just some of thousands of workers in the hive. (photo by: Lexi Pandell)

While there are tens of thousands of urban bee colonies in the United States, compared to the approximately two and a half million commercial colonies, urban bees could have the potential to make one big impact on the nation’s bee population at large, Mussen says.

“Many ‘small scale’ … beekeepers are operating their colonies without any chemical inputs for controlling varroa mites or nosema disease,” Mussen says, whereas commercial beekeepers usually use pesticides or antibiotics to reduce their hives’ vulnerability to infestation and infection. Some of the bees raised by urban beekeepers may not survive without these protections. But the ones that do might have useful genetic characteristics that could be introduced into commercial bee lines, he says.

Schneider and Dippon practice sustainable beekeeping, which means they don’t use chemicals on the hive and only takes surpluses of honey once or twice a year, whereas many beekeepers frequently take all the honey from the bees and give them sugar water as a replacement. They also don’t wear any protective gear or use smoke when they work with the bees.

Beekeeping is a more precise practice than other aspects of urban farming, although the average person can have a hive if they learn the proper techniques, Schneider says. Hives must be built very specifically for the bees’ needs and must be monitored constantly. If the colony grows too big for their hive, they will swarm and leave in search of a new home. The hive also has to be checked to make sure bees aren’t being bothered or killed by pests, like ants. Eric Mussen emphasized that those interested in maintaining hives should be “beekeepers, not bee-havers.”

“My greatest concern about this resurgence in beekeeping is that some beekeepers will be so hands-off that their bees will be vexing homeowners when the bees fly next door for water or when a swarm emerges and moves into the neighbor’s house,” he says.

Some also worry about danger in beekeeping. But this can be overcome, Schneider says, by positioning the hives so the bees’ flight patterns don’t lead them into nearby homes or apartments, as well as learning ways to minimize the chance of being stung. “There’s a slight misunderstanding about bees,” she says. “At times in our life, we have to overcome fear. We got to the dentist, perform at a piano recital. We deal with these things in life and we learn.”

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