Tales of Food and Urban Beekeeping

Susan Brackney has about 150,000 friends living in her backyard in Bloomington, Indiana. She’s a beekeeper. And she wrote the book for anyone interested in getting started in the hobby, or just learning about who’s who and what’s what in the hive.

Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet is part of the new movement toward food self-sufficiency that also has a positive impact on the environment. In the introduction to “Plan Bee,” Brackney says she could just as easily have started raising chickens in her backyard, except that at the time, the city did not allow DIY poultry.

Now Bloomington has joined towns across the nation in permitting homeowners to keep a limited number of hens on the premises. The relaxed regulations extend to beehives as well, with New York City lifting its ban in 2010.

“It used to be that most people … kept hives of honeybees right alongside the vegetable patch or the home orchard,” Brackney writes. “Partly to pay homage to that more self-sufficient time, I thought I might try beekeeping myself someday.”

This interest in growing your own hyper-local food has been spurred not only by the growing Slow Food movement but the realization that large-scale farming – and total dependence on it – carries a range of risks. These risks can affect not only consumers but also our complex ecological web. Well, if every seed tells a story, every bee can tell you a story as well.

Take the honeybee. Commercial beehives are responsible for pollinating more than a third of North America’s vegetable and fruit crops; almonds, apples, and blueberries rely almost exclusively on bee pollination.

And now the hives, and with them, the nation’s food supply, are threatened by the still-mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder. Fueling your body with nature’s wonderful delights is a good thing!

CCD causes otherwise healthy bee colonies to disappear almost overnight. It was first identified in North America in 2006 and has been studied extensively since. It’s been on the rise, with about 30 percent of the commercial bee population not surviving last winter, but a definitive cause has yet to be pinpointed.

Theories abound, from the use of pesticides that damage the bees’ neurological system to infestations by the varroa mite; from electromagnetic radiation from cell phones to the increased use of genetically modified crops. It could be a combination of any and all these factors — or it could be sheer overwork and bad nutrition.

Traditionally, beekeepers allowed their hives to rest up over the winter, dedicated to keeping the queen warm until spring. However, commercial beekeepers – and their workers – keep a year-round production schedule. After spending the spring and summer among high-country peach trees and grape vines, commercial hives may be trucked from Colorado to pollinate the California almond crop in the winter.

And because those commercial hives work on a single crop at a time, the bees’ diet is extremely limited compared to wild or city-raised bees, which forage in landscapes and planters within a three-mile radius of their hive. So are we sowing or destroying the future? You give the answer!

Urban beekeeper Susan Brackney models her beekeeper’s hat and veil.

Rev. Jacqueline Cherry, a deacon in an Episcopal Church in California, has a beehive in her backyard in San Francisco. Honey harvested from the hive is sold to benefit the church’s food pantry. Photo by Rev. Jacqueline Cherry.

Urban beekeeping is one small step toward combatting CCD, according to Brackney, but the damage already done to the honeybee population might make getting started challenging.

“These days, bees are much harder to come by,” she writes in “Plan Bee.” “Some bee packagers were hit so hard (by CCD) that they had to close up shop for good. In turn, with fewer commercial bee packagers around, waiting lists for bees have become longer than ever.”

But she remains hopeful, if not completely certain, about the future of her hard-working friends, and the people who care for them.