Hives and Cities: A Happy Synchrony

By Cristian Boanca

Urban beekeeping is no contrivance of the modern mind. History, in a diversity of regions, indicates that when the honey bee descended from the trees in the act of ‘domestication,’ the hive descended right into the City. This certainly seems odd to modern sensibility, which contends that painful insects are to be stowed away at a safe distance. The ancients, unsurprisingly, inhabited a world of different sensibilities.

Before a case is made for the felicitous kinship between cities and beekeeping, the reader is asked to grant the beekeeper a certain quality of extrospection, which is inherent in any individual that removes the roof above fiercely protective insects to reap the treasure found therein. Such an enterprise necessarily requires knowledge that the hive is always a threat. William Longgood has aptly written that “the bee is domesticated but never tamed.” The same primal response that elicits pain in the beekeeper, simultaneously engenders profound respect for the perpetrators. The interaction of human and hive lends itself to an idealistic impetus that seeks to implement the loyalty and high-mindedness of hive society into the friction of human society. Allow me to explain: the earliest beekeepers, I would venture, saw in the hive far more than a mere source for wax and honey. The beehive is replete with millions of cooperative interactions been individual bees for the aim of protecting and eventual propagation into future generations.

Shakespeare astutely observed that honey bees ‘teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.” Honey bee society is inherently eusocial, where the collective hive, and not the individual bee, is the foundational unit. Individual responsibilities are thereby allocated in markedly different ways. At the top of the social hierarchy is the queen, who, as the sole egg-laying female bee, is responsible for the survival and replication of the hive. Well-nurtured and protected, the queen, along with the developing larvae, are cared for by specialized bees trained for this specific task. Concurrently, job specialization within the hive, though unwavering for the queen, is perpetually in flux for the remaining female workers. Upon emergence from the birth cell, the nascent bee instinctively begins cleaning its own cell, and additionally cares for unhatched larvae. It is only after 3 weeks that the honey bee transitions into the stereotypical role of forager for nectar, that is later converted into the honey. Honey bees are masters of task acquisition and specialization. The role each individual bee assumes is integral to a smooth functioning of the hive.

The City offered nascent beekeeping the vital gifts of security and commerce. The Hive was traditionally fashioned out of pottery or an amalgam of dirt and straw, and summarily placed into the exterior wall of the human dwelling, or in an allocated sector of the city. Such measures were implemented to ensure that no one could steal the movable hive, or the goods found therein. By contrast, the central impetus for contemporary urban beekeeping doesn’t pivot on the value of security, but on the merits of place. It is proximity to home that drives the cultivation of honey in the city. I (as a beekeeper) have had innumerable conversations with potential clients that have prized the ‘localness’ of honey above all else. The societal pivot towards a greater estimation of the local economy, a shift that has been spearheaded by large urban centers, has unwittingly validated the unassailable place of the City. In the past, the City offered safety for beekeepers and their hives; in the present, it demands authenticity and transparency from them. Accounts of honey adulteration, and other unsavory practices abound in the broader world of honey cultivation. Happily, the greater accountability urbanites demand of their food serves as a helpful corrective to the beekeeper, whose ergonomic philosophy begins to emulate the high-mindedness of the creature by which he is called.

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