Backyard Buzz: Green living drives interest in urban beekeeping

Amos Harris and Natalie Semchyshyn The skyline of St. Louis doesn’t come to mind as a backdrop for raising bees, but Amos Harris and his fiancée Natalie Semchyshyn are hoping to change that. Harris owns a building on Eighth Street downtown, and the two have been cultivating vegetables, herbs and flowers on 3,600 square feet of rooftop there. At first, they had to hand-pollinate the plants with a paintbrush because the city isn’t a particularly rich habitat for natural pollinators. Then after doing some research, they hooked up with the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association and decided raising bees might be worth a shot; recently, they acquired two hives, which they tucked behind an air conditioning unit. They aren’t looking to make money, just to get a little bit of honey and some help nurturing their landscaping. Harris hopes the green space going in near the Old Post Office and the public garden being planted on the Gateway Mall will offer plenty of foraging opportunities for his new wards. Drew and Sarah Boeker Drew Boeker and his wife, Sarah, moved to Glendale from Arnold a couple of years ago. Sarah tried to raise blackberries in the ’burbs with little of the success she’d had in JeffCo. They’d heard that beekeeping might help get her plants pollinated, so after getting their neighbors on board, the Boekers got their first hive. Soon, all the plants in the neighborhood were flourishing, not just theirs. Bolstered by this success, they got a second hive last year, which they keep in another yard down the street. Although honey is a natural result of their efforts, harvesting it isn’t the Boekers’ primary interest. They produce enough to use themselves and give to family and friends, and right now that’s enough. Another perk of the hobby besides honey – networking. Boeker, who is a real estate agent by day, said his status as a beekeeper makes a great conversation starter when meeting new clients. Jane Sueme Jane Sueme, secretary of the Eastern Missouri Beekeeping Association, got involved in beekeeping for gardening reasons as well, but has taken her efforts a little further. Currently in her fifth year of beekeeping, she got interested because she wanted to help out her friend’s elaborate backyard ecosystem. She has four hives: two on her friend’s half-acre near Tesson Ferry Road in South County, about a quarter-mile from Interstate 270, and two in her own yard close by. At first, Sueme wasn’t interested in honey, she just wanted the bees’ pollination services. She gave away her harvest initially, but as her interest in beekeeping progressed, she found a ready market for local honey. She now sells at several local shops, and harvested about 150 pounds of honey last year. Not only does she get healthy plants and a second income, but Sueme said her apiarist pursuits help educate as well. “You buy it, you use it, and you have no idea where it came from, I think that’s where our society is right now,” she said, but talking with people about her beekeeping makes them realize how much of the food system they take for granted. Hard times for the hives Times have been hard lately for the honeybee. According to the USDA, the number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has declined more than 50 percent since the 1940s. The demand for crop pollination, though, has steadily increased, which means more bees have to be transported around the country to do their thing, leading to stressed-out bees exposed to more health hazards. Not surprisingly, the USDA also reports that honeybee health has declined since the 1980s with the introduction of parasitic varroa and tracheal mites, and the recent proliferation of colony collapse disorder among other things. Sueme tries not to use medications or chemicals on her bees, but said many commercial beekeepers do because losing hives for them is a bigger financial burden. She said hobbyists, with their smaller number of hives, can afford to stay chemical-free since they don’t have as great a financial stake; if they lose a hive or two, they can easily rebuild. Keeping bees working locally, she believed, might also make them less susceptible to things like colony collapse disorder and mites, and help keep their genetic lines strong. She may be on to something – the USDA says that migratory stress from increased pollination as well as pesticide use may indeed be contributing factors to colony collapse disorder. While no one really has a definitive answer to the problem, some think beekeeping hobbyists, like these urban and suburban small operators, may be part of the solution.