The big bad dirty environment for honey bees

I do not recall the exact wording, but it went something like this: “Do you agree that urban bees are healthier because they have fewer mites?” A trick question that can’t be answered yes or no, it made me want to scream. Oddly, I do remember my exact response, but I will spare you.

It’s hard to know where to begin disagreeing. Healthier than what? Fewer than whom? Are we comparing urban bees to suburban bees, prairie bees, forest bees, or monoculture bees? And who said they are healthier? Who said they have fewer mites? Show me some studies, some numbers.

Do people really believe that the spot where they plop down a hive determines the health of the colony? If all urban bees were healthier and had fewer mites, don’t you think just a few people would start overwintering their hives in the nearest metropolis? It just isn’t that simple.

City folk seem to think the big bad dirty is rural, and rural folk think the big bad dirty is urban. And for some reason, neither side realizes there is middle ground, that there are vast areas without cities or big ag.

If anything, I think big ag is more aware of bee problems than big urb. Growers know pesticide contamination is problematic, they know monoculture diets are bad, they know migration from crop to crop is hard on the bees.

Big urb, on the other hand, likes to disregard the high level of noise and incessant light in the environment. They like to ignore the fact that bee-killing roads are everywhere and that high winds shriek around buildings and throw bees off course. They pretend fine particulates and pollutants, including heavy metals, don’t land on flowers and stick to nectar and pollen alike.

Sure, some urban bees will do great, just as some rural bees will do great. But just because five colonies tucked between skyscrapers a half-mile from the airport exceeded expectations doesn’t mean they all will. Maybe their keeper had good training. Maybe he purchased exceptional bees. Maybe he made lucky decisions. Maybe this wasn’t his year to fail.

I’ve often wondered why beekeeping has to be a contest between urban and rural, commercial and hobbyist, natural and unnatural. No matter where you are or what your philosophy, you should concentrate on your own bees and stop worrying about everybody else. By all means learn from other beekeepers, absorb the details, compare notes—but stop keeping score. If your bees are thriving, be grateful.

As for all those arrogant, supercilious, pain-in-the-butt beekeepers? Forgetaboutthem. They disappear. Honestly. When the arrogant ones fail—and they all do eventually—they just quietly disappear rather than let it be known that their colonies up and died. The louder they crow, the harder they fall. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.



  • In the UK, we don’t have a rural v urban beekeeping debate as you have described. It is suggested that keeping bees in cities is beneficial – it is warmer & the parks provide a plentiful and wide range of forage. However, the recent encouragement of ‘city beekeeping’ may reduce the amount of available forage.

    You mention pollutants in urban areas. I read something recently that I thought significant in terms of colony losses. Since the 1800s air pollution has reduced by 75% the distance insects can detect scent trails that plants use to attract pollinators. Scent molecules used to travel 1,000 – 1,200 m – in polluted atmospheres they only travel 200 – 300 m before they are destroyed. [Jose D Fuentes (co-author), University of Virginia, in journal of Atmospheric Environment 10th April, 2008.]


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