Urban beekeeping

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, June 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: urban beekeeping.

For thousands of years, bees have provided honey for food and medicine as well as vital plant pollination. As humans continue to concentrate in urban areas, there’s a growing number of people who want to bring the benefits of honeybees to the city.

EICHER: WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg spent the day with an urban apiarist in Portland, Oregon, who’s trying to build a buzz about bees. Sorry!

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: The streets of downtown Portland are pulsing during morning rush hour. But there’s another type of congestion that most people probably aren’t noticing: bee traffic.

SHAW: This is like, um, I always call it like high traffic, happy hour, rush hour. It’ll get even busier than this, this afternoon when more foragers are out.

Amanda Shaw is an urban beekeeper. She wears a purple bandana and plastic glasses. Her friends calls her Mandy. A stitched patch on her backpack says: “Support the Bees.”

She’s watching her bees fly in and out of hives in an unusual place: the rooftop of a downtown brick high rise. From up here, these bees can find nectar and pollinate yards and parks all over the city.

SHAW: That person in the crane gets to watch my bees all day.

Shaw has nearly 20 bee hives all around Portland in whatever space is available.

Shaw started beekeeping five years ago after she got laid off from a job in finance. She didn’t know what to do with her life next and fell into a depression. Until a bee documentary gave her an idea.  

SHAW: I took a class on keeping mason bees at the local garden center, and then I planted a big pollinator garden and I just totally geeked out.

Today, Mandy Shaw runs a bee education and consulting business called Waggle Works. She also produced a beekeeping podcast and is working towards a masters in beekeeping. Shaw says keeping bees is difficult. The first year she tried, all of her bees died. Education is necessary.

SHAW: I advocate for beekeepers to responsibly manage their hives. I mean, you can’t just get bees and put them in a hive and leave them alone and expect them to do well.

AUDIO: [Sound of walking in gravel]

SHAW: Hellloo!

To help educate and support novice beekeepers, Shaw also acts as a beekeeper first responder.

Today, a local beekeeper needs help with a backyard beehive that’s outgrowing their home. So Shaw brings another box and frames to add to the hive.

SHAW: You can add boxes as the bees need more space.

She puts on a protective white suit and a hat with a veil. But she doesn’t like the bulky protective gloves, so she wears plastic medical gloves instead.

As soon as she lifts the top of the hive off, the bees angrily swarm. One stings her through her glove.

SHAW: Alright bees! Bees 1 beekeepers 0! Yeah, they didn’t care for that.

Most of the time the bees are comfortable enough with Shaw’s presence that she doesn’t need smoke to calm them down. But these seem to be having a bad day.

SHAW: If they’ve got, you know, some critter knocking on their door at night eating bees, that could put them in a really bad mood, which I suspect might be what’s going on with, with the colony over there.

She’ll add that box another time.

SOUND: Hello, Mary!

Later, Shaw gets a call from an elderly couple. They have bees swarming on the side of their house.

SHAW: If you have a ladder, we should be in good shape.

During springtime, colonies split up to start new hives. While scouts look for a new home, the rest of the bees form a giant ball.

SHAW: That’s such a weird spot for them to land!

The couple reveals they sprayed the bees with a hose to get them to go away. Shaw explains that could injure or kill them. Next time, they should call a local beekeeper first.

SHAW: I’m just taking a minute to sort of gauge their attitude right now.

The bees stay calm, so Shaw climbs the ladder. She uses a cut-in-half milk gallon to scoop up the bees. Then she shakes them out into a bucket. Once she moves a few scoops, the rest will follow.

SHAW: OK, I think they’ll take it from here.

The payment for removing the bees? Shaw gets to keep them and start another colony.

Her favorite place to bring bees is here to a friend’s farm on the outskirts of Portland.

SHAW: Tada! Here it is!

In a clearing, surrounded by trees, Shaw has half a dozen yellow, blue and purple beehives humming.

SHAW: You know they help me with my anxiety a lot because when you’re working with them, you have to be so focused in the moment that it makes me forget about other stuff.

Shaw recently caught another colony in a bait hive. Today, she begins slowly moving frames of honeycomb to a permanent hive. She carefully examines the bees clinging to each panel for disease.

SHAW: Varroa mites are tough because they live inside the honeybee colony and they reproduce in the pupa. it can cause their wings to become all deformed. So they’ll never be able to fly.

For now, Shaw says this colony looks healthy and will have the workforce to produce lots of honey.

SHAW: If you look in there, you can see little tiny larva. Just like little teeny tiny little things.

Raw honey is great, but Shaw leaves most of it for the bees. She only takes a small amount from her hives once a year.

For Shaw, the best part of her job is seeing people recognize the importance of bees to life in both the country and in the city. And of course the sense of beelonging she’s found with them.

SHAW: I think that bees have definitely made me a better person and I think that we have a lot that we could learn from them and model in our own societies. Their willingness to do the job, even if they’re tired. They don’t take days off, they just, they do it. It’s a very selfless way to be.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Portland, Oregon.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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