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Hive Minds: Urban Beekeeping in High Places

Judy Gerdts and Becky Masterman of the Bee Squad atop the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Judy Gerdts and Becky Masterman of the Bee Squad atop the Minneapolis Institute of Arts - Dan Dennehy, MIA
Beekeeping has been legal in Minneapolis since 2009, but since May, when the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance making it easier to keep bees in the city, an ever-increasing number of rooftop hives have been buzzing, including some at high-profile locales such as Minneapolis’ City Hall, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Weisman Art Museum and the Foshay Tower (now the W hotel).

The biggest change under the new ordinance is the ability to install hives on rooftops taller than one story without having to get approval from neighbors. This is a significant improvement for would-be beekeepers who previously were required to get permission from 80 percent of the property owners within 250 feet—that’s upwards of 100 signatures in some areas of downtown.

Rooftop are a good place for urban beekeeping because bees tend to fly up when exiting the hive, lessening interaction with people on the streets below, says Becky Masterman, who co-coordinates the Bee Squad with fellow bee keeper Jody Gerdts. Started by University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak in 2010, the Bee Squad  aims to help foster healthy bee communities in the Twin Cities through education, training and data collection on the health of urban colonies.  

The squad’s most high-profile program is called Hive to Bottle, which allows individuals and organizations to keep bees without having to install and manage the hives themselves. Hives at City Hall, the Weisman, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are all taken care of by the Bee Squad. Masterman explains: “We go on to the properties, sometimes weekly, and manage the colonies for people. Sometimes, they eventually take over the beekeeping, but we have clients who want to help bees but really don’t want to get too close to the colonies.”

Urban Beekeepers to the Rescue, Worldwide

Bee populations have been declining at alarming rates for years due to things like pesticide use, inability to get the nutrients they need, and disease. A tragedy for the bees themselves, the loss of bees also threatens the world’s food supply as many crops depend on bees for pollination. By making beekeeping easier, Minneapolis joins other cities and countries around the world that are answering the call to help bees before it’s too late. A few notable roofs hosting beehives include the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, Paris’ Opéra Garnier and London’s Tate galleries.

The Weisman’s two rooftop bee boxes were installed by The Bee Squad in May, says Scott Winter, the museum’s development director. One of the many collaborations the museum engages in locally each year, the museum hopes their efforts will help raise awareness about the importance of urban beekeeping. “We’re delighted by our partnership with the Bee Squad and the opportunity to put this important issue on more people’s radar,” he explains. “When we can take an active role on a current issue even if it isn’t 100 percent related to what our museum is about, it’s important.”

Dan Dennehy, head of visual resources at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, expresses similar sentiments when talking about the four hives that were also installed of the museum’s rooftop in May. One of three museum staff members known as the “bee buddies” because they communicate regularly with the Bee Squad, Dennehy was asked to take on the project because his wife’s father keeps bees so he already knew a fair amount about what it takes. “Our director, Kaywin Feldman, really wanted to do this so she was the inspiration behind our beekeeping,” he explains. “We’re a museum, but also a citizen and a neighbor and we wanted to show that we’re part of the larger social network.”

Sweet Rewards

Urban rooftops make great locations for bee colonies because foraging bees usually enjoy access to a wide variety of flowering plants and less exposure to harmful pesticides and other chemicals. And because they pollinate plants as far as two and a half to three miles from their hives, urban gardeners growing food and flowers benefit greatly too.

The sweet rewards of urban beekeeping have also been a boon to the local food scene. Take local honey purveyor the Beez Kneez for example. Owner Kristy Allen started the company in 2010 because she wanted to play a role in helping honeybees while being a resource for Twin Cities’ beekeepers. In addition to installing and maintaining hives in parks, schools, community gardens, and urban farms, Allen and her business partner, Erin Rupp, also teach people how to tend their own hives.

Unlike the Bee Squad, though, the Beez Kneez doesn’t charge for hive maintenance. Instead, they collect the honey and sell it themselves. Rupp and Allen deliver the honey by bike—dressed as bees. “Kristy started a bike business because she is a cyclist and loves it,” Rupp explains. “And it’s great because it is so easy to stop and talk to people about bees and what we do. If you’re biking while wearing antennae and black and yellow outfits, people want to ask you what you’re doing.”

Susan Brown, owner of St. Paul’s Mademoiselle Miel, also tends urban hives, including those atop the W at the Foshay Tower and the Hyatt in downtown Minneapolis. Some locations pay for her services while others allow her to harvest the honey as payment.

The daughter of a professional chef and a lifelong fan of using honey as a sweetener, Brown is an award-winning chocolatier known for her honey bon-bons. “I was invited to do an event and my honey bon-bons were such a big hit, I worked with a chocolatier on them and eventually started selling and they’ve just taken off,” she says, noting that Minnesota Monthly named the confections one of the best chocolates in the state.

Talking with Brown, it’s clear that she feels as strongly about food as she does about bees. “People are often afraid of bees, but honeybees aren’t aggressive. They’re not at all like yellow jackets. And it’s important to remember that bees are a part of nature, and there is nature even in the city.”  

Meleah Maynard's last article for The Line was a portrait of Grow! Twin Cities, for our February 15, 2012 issue.

Photo of the Bee Squad at the MIA by Dan Dennehy/Minneapolis Institute of Arts; all other photos by Bill Kelley
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