Five Friends Any City Beekeeper Wants to Have

by  Toni Burnham

City beekeepers often worry about the resources surrounding our bees. Well, here is another reason to take heart! We live in a 360 degree, 365-day-a-year throng of interesting and active people and all their assets, skills and interests, many of whom are ready to become willing collaborators. The Friends of Beekeepers aren’t just spiritual buddies, they can help us get (almost) free bees, apiaries, access to cool tools and certified facilities, and help you avoid trouble. And what follows here is just a teensy start on a list of local heroes available to help your city bees and beeks. Some community institutions even fit into two or more of the categories listed here!

To make friends, you have to make contact, of course, and that can happen a few ways: out of normal living, out of good luck, or by awkwardly screwing up your courage. Whatever works, folks. Remember, most of your would-bee collaborators have seen the pitch-black doom-saying magazine covers warning of the death of bees (maybe you should make a couple of copies to carry around with you, too) and have heard dire things on the network news and NPR. Half of your overture is already made. Advice about how to extend the hand of friendship that works well in each case is included below.


The Police

No one wants trouble with the police, but these are the people who often come face to face with the trouble stinging insects can cause when they set up in the wrong place. It’s way better for the police to experience us as an asset before they experience honey bees as a problem, so this is what I suggest.

Every Spring I write our Chief of Police and the seven District Commanders with a phone number, an email and the promise that if they get a swarm of bees on public space, they have a guaranteed responding beekeeper. If I can, I recruit a responder from each district, as well. I also offer their officers a presentation on the role of beekeeping in this city if they are interested.

If you can get the word out in this manner, many feral bees will be protected with police tape until you get there, rather than sprayed with insecticide before they have a chance. A little bit of honey from time to time also helps your local policemen feel the love, rather than the irritation of dealing with another entitled urban hipster. The police are going to be called about a bee incident in your city at some point, and will face some very irate anti-arthropod citizens. Let us be the solution, and let the folks who simply will not listen to the value of honey bees be the blowhards.

Just saying


Businesses and Others with Food Service Kitchens

Food and beverage laws vary a lot from place to place, and it is Not Easy to figure them out. For ultimate reassurance that your hive products are legit for local sale, there is nothing like a harvest in a certified food service kitchen. Plus, these places can often be cleaned with a hose!

You might first think of reaching out to a restaurant owner, but this can be a hard one for them: these businesses are pretty short on space and resources. Every city, however, has other businesses with large facilities and more flexibility. Some of the churches below have commercial kitchens, as do schools (especially colleges and universities), hotels, food banks, convention centers and some large employers.

And this can be cooler than cool. One business here bakes a lot of pastry, and has an industrial sized proofing oven. It’s used to get yeast to rise more quickly without killing them. Why do you care? Because if you have Nosema in your gear, you can set that oven reliably within 1 degree of your target, in our case 140°F for 15 minutes, to kill those spores without chemical contamination. Your combs will melt at about 150°F, however, and no consumer oven has that kind of control. Even with the industrial model, therefore, we went with 135°F for a half hour instead. Make sure to let ‘em cool before moving stuff.

Did I mention the walk-in freezers where you can stack gear and come back in a few days to no wax moths?

How to get this kind of access? Well, chefs like bees but they love local products, and many of the organizations above have green initiatives where a honey bee project or two would fit in nicely. Find out of the organization could use some honey, a presentation, or some publicity. Sometimes they want an apiary (and you probably have a short course student who needs a hive site). It’s also important to keep your requests reasonable and infrequent: these folks have food operations to run and tight schedules to maintain. Here, we harvest once or twice a year, borrow the freezer or the oven less than that. They also need to keep it clean, and you need to be prepared to figure out how to do that to their standard (brown craft paper can be your friend!) It helps to have more than one buddy in this category.


The Local Land Grant University (and its extension program)

Most cities have a nearby branch of a State University of some kind, usually a Land Grant University. The latter are schools founded with “practical agriculture” as one of several central goals, often a difficult criterion to meet in a major metro area. Land Grant Universities usually support extension programs tied to ag needs in the city, like composting and community gardening. But beekeeping is even MORE practical agriculture, and your extension team might be pretty psyched to help you out with your short course: they have classrooms in easily accessible areas, can often manage registration and payments for you, and can give you a lot of publicity. Being associated with both the public university and a degree-granting organization also gives you tons of authority when dealing with the authorities, and helps to set good standards for proper preparation and responsibility. If you ever decide to apply for a SARE Grant, or other types of funding, you have established relationships with PhDs and research institutions that would help your application, as well.

Down the line, it may be possible to establish community apiaries through these institutions – who else has that kind of safe, publicly accessible space? – but you are going to have to build some trust for that.

To make contact, I would start with an extension catalog and information about the areas of study that touch most closely on pollinators, and contact that instructor or program manager. Whenever we have run a beekeeping course downtown here, we have turned up one or two Extension folks by chance, too. Review your student list and your membership: you probably have a contact already.


Big Neighborhood Houses of Worship

Probably every city in North America has a big community church in every neighborhood: this is a great way of networking into areas where you don’t yet have any traction, and to meet folks you just don’t know (yet). And churches, temples, and mosques have deep philosophical and historical ties to beekeeping, as well as meeting rooms, community volunteer programs, catering kitchens, large roofs and/or grounds, and political clout.

If you have a club member or a friend who attends a given church, you have what it takes to get an introduction, and to make the offer of a beekeeping presentation or apiary visit, perhaps for the kids’ religious school, or in conjunction with a holiday. You might want to let your members know that such collaborations with their faith communities are possible, and get suggestions. Some congregations actively seek volunteer opportunities: we have had Friends Service (Quaker) folks find us, and then come to build hive bodies and frames (and offer more in future).

If you have no ties to religious organizations in some parts of your city, watch the activities or weekend section of the paper (especially around Earth Day) to see which congregations have planned special events or projects. Contact that organizer or the clergy involved! Remember, this is exciting and relevant for them, too, on the deepest and highest levels.


Your City’s Arborists

Urban arborists are crazy wonderful, whether they work for the city or private contractors, because they (and their power tools, and heavy equipment, and brawny fearless workers) contribute to tremendous feral bee saves and create opportunities to enhance pollinator habitat on an awesome scale. Just think: these are trained biologists roaming every street of your city, the kind of folks whose favorite color is green. They often face government goals and environmental incentives with which we can help them. In our city, the arborists also choose the new plantings that go into our tree canopy renewal program, and they ask for beekeeper recommendations. In my city, they are planting over 6,000 trees this year (that’s a lot of pollen and nectar).

Getting in contact: We’ve done this several ways. Most bee tree calls come from a citizen or landowner with a problem, and mostly that person would like the bees to be saved. To ensure that you are invited in at the beginning, make sure that Jane or Joe Average hears that there are beekeepers around who are willing to help. Here we do it by posting about swarm and bee tree help on neighborhood message boards (mailing lists, newsletters, Facebook groups, Reddit) and encouraging folks to re-post them wherever they want. The process needs to be repeated, preferably every Spring. It really helps to make yourself known to arborists on the city payroll, because they cover all the street trees and most home owners take a stab at getting the city to deal with problem trees first.

When contacted by a citizen, ask them to put you in contact with their tree contractor, and offer to work with the latter, in as flexible a manner as possible. Get a look at the tree in question to be sure you can deal with it, and make sure the tree contractor understands that they need to get the thing cut and moved (into your vehicle) as you ask. Most tree contractors are delighted to get contact information for beekeepers, and will often call you on their own afterward.

I’m also not above scanning the ads in my neighborhood newsletter to find tree service companies, and then introducing us by email or phone. Having a web page or other presence that gives you some credibility helps if you go for cold calls.


In closing

February is an excellent time to lay out your strategy for the year, and to figure out where your beekeeping community’s needs are. In our big, beautiful cities, it is almost certain that there is someone out there with the skill set, the gadgets, and the access you need to help your bees and your beeks. And folks love to be on the side of our golden angels! And it is so tremendously cool to get let into these overlapping urban universes.


There are also science museums, the local department of the environment, public schools, real estate developers, organic supermarkets…loads more. Lemme know if you wanna hear about them. Spring is coming, and let’s hope our friendships bloom along with the flowers!