By Philip Bethge
Emil Wiedenhöft’s bees know their way around the urban jungle. They buzz in, flying around the 71-year-old beekeeper’s head as they carry nectar and pollen to the hive. Then they swarm out again, heading back into the surrounding sea of buildings — a squadron of tiny, striped nectar collectors
“They have to fly out of here at a steep angle to make it over the buildings,” says Wiedenhöft, as he casually wipes one of the bees from his shirt and points up into the air. The gray wall of his apartment building towers over the beekeepers’ patio. Two beehives stand in front of his apartment window.
Wiedenhöft is a beekeeper in Berlin. “Beekeeping in the big city isn’t a problem at all,” says Wiedenhöft, who is retired. He has even managed to convince a few neighbors to take up the hobby. “I’ve trained six beekeepers in the eight years I’ve been living here,” he says, proudly. “A young beekeeper needs a role model.”
Still, despite Wiedenhöft’s efforts, there are too few beekeepers in Germany and, as a result, not enough bees. Experts already fear that the shortfall could have serious consequences for fruit farmers, because the industrious pollen collectors are no longer adequately pollinating their plants. But beekeepers like Wiedenhöft are bucking the trend. The profession, which includes a disproportionately high percentage of older people, is trying to recruit new blood with courses and special offers — especially in cities.
Hundreds of thousands of bees are constantly dashing through the backyards and courtyards of cities like Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich. The densely populated Ruhr region is now home to more bees than the surrounding countryside. Bees are at home on Berlin’s balconies, rooftop terraces and hotel roofs. Bees are also popping up in larger numbers in cities around the world. In London, beehives can be seen on the roof of the Bank of England — honey from the London metropolitan area has even won the first prize at Britain’s National Honey Show. And in Manhattan, “Sheriff Beekeeper” David Graves sells his Rooftop Magic Honey at a premium price.
Armies of Bees
“Cities are ideally suited for bees,” says Jürgen Hans, chairman of Berlin’s beekeepers’ association. There are roughly 500 beekeepers in the German capital alone. Hamburg is home to at least 50 million bees from more than 2,100 bee colonies.
While many city dwellers are likely to gasp at such numbers, the armies of bees are hopeful signs for beekeepers. “The animals develop marvelously in the city, because it’s warmer there than in the countryside,” says Hans, adding that cities offer “a large and constant selection of flowers for bees searching for nectar.” Hans, a beekeeper himself, waxes lyrical about the chestnut, black locust and maple trees lining the streets, and the sweet pea, briar roses and knotgrass on playgrounds.
Hamburg’s trendy Ottensen neighborhood is the ideal place for lively city bees. On this early summer day, for example, beekeeper Georg Petrausch is checking his hives on the roof of the “Motte,” a neighborhood cultural center. “Nice flying weather today,” says the 45-year-old, as he gazes across streets and alleyways flooded with sunlight, the sound of traffic drifting up from the street below. It is a trendy quarter, with Moroccan restaurants across the street and numerous bars where hip urbanites hang out.
Petrausch lights a bundle of hemp straw in a pipe-like device. The beekeeper uses the smoke to calm the insects. Then he carefully removes a bee-covered honeycomb from the hive and opens a few of the hexagonal cells. Petrausch has lovingly dubbed the glistening honey flowing from the cells Ottenser Wildblüte (Ottensen Wildflower).
Bees and Bratwurst
He harvests between 150 and 200 kilos of the sweet stuff a year, often with the help of neighborhood children. A teacher, Petrausch has also founded a beekeeping program for kids. Once a week, young bee enthusiasts meet in the garden of a school nearby where the students handle the honeycombs without protective clothing while bees buzz around their heads.
“I’m not afraid at all anymore,” says 12-year-old Iris, “and the honey we make here also tastes better than honey from the store.”
As enthusiastic as members of the trade are about these young, budding beekeepers, they haven’t prevented the nationwide number from continuing its decline. Today there are only 82,000 beekeepers in Germany, and they manage about 700,000 bee colonies. Experts say this is far too little, and that Germany needs at least a million bee colonies. “The honeybee pollinates 80 percent of our flowering plants,” says Jürgen Tautz of the “Beegroup” at the University of Würzburg in southern Germany. “The loss of bees is a threat to diversity.” Declining bee populations can mean a drop in the numbers and quality of apples, cherries, berries and agricultural crops. Many wild plants also do not reproduce as efficiently without the industrious insects.
To make matters worse, bees are getting more sensitive. Like domestic pigs, they are now overbred, says Tautz, which makes them more susceptible to disease and environmental toxins. Only recently, clothianidine (sold under the commercial name Poncho), a pesticide used to treat seeds, was blamed for the deaths of large numbers of bees in southwestern Germany. The use of monocultures in agriculture is also detrimental to the insects. According to Tautz, “if bees can only find pollen from rapeseed and sunflowers, it’s about as harmful to them as it is for people to eat nothing but bratwurst.”
But the insects’ greatest enemy is a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor. It infests the hive, sucks bee “blood” and weakens the entire colony. In the end, the bees are no longer capable of surviving winter. In the winter of 2002, for example, about 30 percent of all bee colonies in Germany died with infestations of these killer mites believed to have been one of the main causes.
Young Beekeepers Needed
Only experienced beekeepers are capable of controlling mite infestation, which is one of the reasons efforts to train new beekeepers are so important to the industry. The beekeeping profession is in rapid decline, with only about a dozen apprentices throughout Germany today. This highlights the importance of hobby beekeepers — about 95 percent of all bee owners — recruiting young people.
The latest trend is beekeeping on a trial basis. Experienced apiarists lease individual colonies to young beekeepers for a year and provide them with advice and support. At the end of this trial year, the young beekeepers can opt to continue or return the bees.
“We had 11 new beekeepers in our club last year,” says “bee godfather” Peter Schömbs of Berlin’s Zehlendorf Beekeeping Club, “and 10 of them decided to stay.” The 65-year-old trained Bert Kleinlosen. Although Kleinlosen is 58 himself, the bearded novice is, oddly enough, considered a young beekeeper. Beekeeping clubs are firmly in the hands of the 60 and old generation. Anyone who can bring down the average age is more than welcome.
In Berlin’s Schmargendorf neighborhood, experienced and novice beekeepers work side-by-side. Together they make small frames for the honeycombs, hunt down mites or prevent the bees from swarming. This happens when the beehive becomes too crowded and the queen escapes with part of the colony. Recapturing the swarm is an arduous task.
When bees swarm, they congregate in large groups in trees or on lampposts, as they search for a new place to start a hive. The mere sight of such a large concentration of bees leads many a city dweller to question the wisdom of urban beekeeping. What happens if the poisonous insects decide to sting, after all? Bee stings can be dangerous, even life-threatening to people who are allergic.
‘Don’t Try This Yourself’
“When people and bees begin living in closer quarters, the incidence of allergies automatically rises,” says Munich allergist Bernhard Przybilla. Wolfgang Sieger, an internist from the Bavarian town of Wörth an der Donau, warns “every beekeeper should find out if there are people who are allergic to bees living nearby.” But, Sieger adds, the problem isn’t as dire as some might believe, because only about one in every 100 people is allergic to bees. Compared to wasps, says Sieger, bees are “a very peaceful species.”
Beekeepers feel the same way. For decades, they have been trying to breed gentleness into these industrious insects. Apis mellifera carnica, or Carniolan bees, are the result of this ongoing breeding effort. “It’s the ideal city bee,” says Benedikt Polaczek, a bee researcher at the Free University of Berlin, “it’ll only sting if I try to turn it into a postage stamp.”
Polaczek, who has been keeping bees for 40 years, teaches university courses for beekeepers and regularly hosts groups of schoolchildren and even kindergarten classes. Recently, the 51-year-old bee expert was showing the youngsters how to extract honey. Using a tool called a frame lifter, he opened the cells of a honeycomb and then placed it into a honey extractor. The device uses centrifugal force to extract the sweet, amber-colored liquid from the wax.
“City honey has an outstanding aroma,” said the beekeeper, and gave his young visitors a taste. “And besides, it’s very clean, because they don’t spray pesticides as much in the city.” Then the researcher showed the children his hives. Using his hand, he carefully brushed several dozen worker bees from a honeycomb. The agitated animals crawled around on his fingers.
“Look, the bees are completely peaceful,” says Polaczek. But before his guests left, he gave them a bit of advice: “Just don’t try this yourself.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan