A taste of honey - Urban beekeeping may already be buzzing in a neighborhood near you

Keri Fisher

Nancy Mangion remembers the first time she met a beekeeper. Her horse-drawn buggy was getting fixed in an Amish village when a man came up to her and asked, " Wanna see my honey house? " She was afraid of bees at the time, but she followed him. " There were bees everywhere, " she remembers. " He took a scoop of honey with his finger from a wax frame. ‘Wanna try some honey? It’s nice and fresh.’ So I tried it. " The man told Mangion that he hadn’t had a cold or allergy since he began keeping bees. That’s when she decided to get her own.

Now she’s the nonchalant bee-lover trying to calm a hysteric: me. When I pull up to her house and see them swarming around, I almost turn around and go home. She has to hold my hand as we walk by the hives to her gazebo. When I point nervously to the two insects buzzing above, she laughs. " Those aren’t bees, " she says. " Those are wasps. " Comforting.

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Mangion, who also teaches music and raises llamas, has 10 hives at her home in Lexington. And not only that - she’s become something of an apiary evangelist. As the owner of Beekeepers’ Warehouse in Woburn, she sells bees, honey jars, wooden frames and wax sheets for hives, honey candies, bee books and posters, and the funny-looking mesh outfits beekeepers sometimes wear. Beekeepers’ Warehouse boasts a mailing list of 1000 people, of whom 500 are regular customers. Of those, about 80 percent are urban dwellers. Mangion attracts customers from Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and " every city and town inside Route 128. " She knows of hives atop a museum and on the roof of a condo near Boston City Hospital. She’s even submitted a grant proposal to start a beekeeping program in Roxbury for high-school students.

It’s enough to make you think urban beekeeping has ... buzz.

If you're looking for a manageable experiment in animal husbandry, keeping bees in the densely populated suburbs - or even in the city - is not as bizarre as it sounds. In fact, Mangion says, the practice dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used honey for food, medicine, and embalming. Bees require very little space; today’s man-made hives are about a foot square and vertically stackable, and if the hives are placed in a high spot the bees will stay out of people’s way by flying overhead (they tend to fly in a straight line toward their goal, hence the term " beeline " ). And it’s fairly inexpensive. A starter box of bees costs about $60 and includes 15,000 bees and one queen. The wood frames and wax to set up the hive will run you around $100. You’ll need to buy jars for your honey and rent an extractor machine to remove the honey from the comb (another service the Beekeepers’ Warehouse provides). Other than that, the main investment is time.

Beekeeping can be as limited or intensive as you want, since the bees form their own self-sufficient community. The only required year-round effort on the beekeeper’s part is general maintenance, in the form of checking inside the hive every couple of weeks to make sure everything is running smoothly. More time-consuming (and messy) is honey harvesting, a four-step process that needs to be done only once a year. You remove the bees from the hive; remove the wax, which holds the honey, from the frames; extract the honey from the wax; and jar the honey. The whole thing takes about four to six hours per hive. The first year probably won’t yield much honey, as the bees are too busy setting up house to produce a lot, but an established hive usually yields 30 to 60 pounds in a year. (Mangion advises removing only a third of the honey in the hives. " You’re keeping bees, not robbing them, " she points out.)

Dealing with bees is a very slow, methodical process. If you move too quickly around the hive, the bees will think you’re trying to attack and will sting. Having to slow down in this way can be soothing amid the frenzy of urban life. There is something innately satisfying about watching the life cycle of bees, from the larval state to the final honey product. " Watching " is the operative word. " You don’t really do anything, " says Mangion. " Most of the time you just observe them. You can sit there and get hypnotized. " 

" It’s a native sociological system under your control, " explains Jim Stringer, who until recently kept bees at his home in Melrose. " All bees have their little jobs. " People living in an urban environment rarely get to see an animal community up close, but beekeeping brings a bit of the wild right to your front door. That’s a powerful incentive for people with childhood memories like Stringer’s. " I must have kept and caught every slimy, jumpy, creepy, crawly bug at some point in my life, " he says.

Apiarists also claim that beekeeping promotes health. When you eat the honey from your own hives, you’re eating minute quantities of pollen from all the plants in your area and, some people believe, building up a tolerance that averts allergic reactions. Mangion, like the Amish man who touched off her interest in bees, maintains that her pollen allergies have completely disappeared since she started. Then there’s " bee acupuncture, " or bee-venom therapy, in which people allow bees to sting certain places on the body to treat multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, asthma, depression, and other complaints. This has been practiced around the world for centuries by apitherapists, and many beekeepers practice it on a smaller scale. Mangion has a bad ankle, and when the pain intensifies she will let herself be stung to ease it.

Of course, there is one little problem: choosing to keep bees in an urban area may be perceived by your neighbors as a sign that says i want to hurt your children. Many people seem to think that bees are vicious hunters, hanging around picnics and such, just waiting to sting an unsuspecting human.

Bee-lovers beg to differ. " Bees don’t go to picnics - those are yellow jackets, which are wasps, and meat eaters, " Mangion says. " The honeybee is vegetarian. It only eats nectar from flowers. " They do sting, but only when they feel their young or the hive is in danger. Yet most of us still fear them, and those fears can have the weight of law: in New York City, keeping bees is prohibited under a law banning animals that are " wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm. " 

Massachusetts has no such prohibitions. " Every bee regulation that we have is designed to enhance beekeeping, " says Al Carl, apiary inspector for Massachusetts (believe it or not, every state has one). Still, he explains, bees can be classified as a public nuisance: " That’s up to the local authorities to interpret. " 

Even when the authorities don’t get involved, angry neighbors can bring a beekeeping experiment to a halt. Just ask Stringer, who said goodbye to his bees after a neighbor complained that they were preventing his mother from leaving the house. " The bees had been there all summer long, " says Stringer. He had been keeping bees for five months at that point. " They complained the day after I harvested the honey, " he says. " I don’t think they even knew the bees were there [before then]. " He moved his bees to the other side of his house for a few weeks, but he ended up moving them permanently to a friend’s farm in the country.

No wonder beekeepers resort to stealth techniques. Both Carl and Mangion agree that keeping hives hidden is the best bet. Carl recommends painting hives brown or dark green. Mangion suggests placing a tomato plant in front of the hive. And two Cambridge beekeepers were so nervous about their neighbors’ reactions that they declined to be interviewed for this article.

Mangion hopes that education can make the cities and suburbs a more welcoming world for bees and their human fans. The key, she says, is to start with young people - like her neighbor’s daughter, who at the age of four wandered over to the hives, removed the lid, and emerged unscathed.