The Urban Homesteader is a regular feature about values and practices that hark back to days when people (country and city folks alike) were more resource–wise, less wasteful and more self-sufficient. We’ll explore why MK represents a sweet spot for those who desire to live an urban homesteader lifestyle. We’ll learn about a variety of environmentally aware practices like vegetable gardening, edible landscaping, composting, rain water harvesting, soap making, beekeeping, food preserving and forms of energy conserving that are becoming hallmarks of the 21st century ‘back to the city’ movement.  

The Urban Homesteader is guest edited by Andrew Brake, Anne Collins and David Stuckert, owners of Agrarian located in MK at 661 East 49th Street. 

Beekeeping is a traditional homesteading activity that dates back to long before there were any homesteads. Before there were any beekeepers, early humans harvested honey from hives they found in the wild. The earliest records of harvesting honey are 15,000 year-old cave paintings! As hunter–gatherer cultures evolved to agrarian cultures, structures as simple as hollow logs and clay pots were provided for bees to build their hives in so that the hives would be in predictable and convenient locations and new wild hives wouldn’t have to constantly found.

This was the beginning of beekeeping and for thousands of years beekeeping remained about the same. This style of beekeeping had one major drawback in that the hive had to be destroyed in order to harvest the honey. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that hives with moveable comb were developed. 

But why would anyone mess around with bees and risk being stung? The answer is pretty simple, for millennia bees and beekeeping have been all about the honey! Honey is really, really good and, as turns out, very good for you. It has more protein than red meat, is the only food produced by insects that humans consume, has anti-bacterial and anti-oxidant properties, reportedly reduces allergies to local pollens and never spoils. In fact, when Alexander the Great died far from home, his body was transported in honey to preserve it for the trip home.

Today, beekeeping is still about the honey, but it is also about the crucial role bees play in pollination. Bees directly pollinate about a third of all flower and fruit crops and indirectly pollinate 80% of all food crops. Since we are losing 30% to 50% of all of our bees each year, many urban beekeepers are now more focused on the role bees play in pollination than on the honey. The loss of bees necessitates farmers renting bees to pollinate their crops. In California alone 1.5 million hives are trucked in each year to pollinate the almond trees and in Japan they actually had to have workers with two-haired brushes pollinate fruit tree blossoms by hand.

The heavy loss of bees is being partially mitigated by the increase in urban beekeeping. Hives are appearing everywhere – on top of luxury hotels downtown, on Mass Avenue and all over the Meridian~Kessler neighborhood— and there’s even an annual “bee school” where new beekeepers can begin their beekeeping experience.

We asked a local urban beekeeper, Sarah Grain, how she got involved in beekeeping.

“One of my best friends is an urban beekeeper in Indianapolis and inspired me with his love of beekeeping. My family consumes an astronomical amount of honey, and as I already kept a garden and fruit trees, the natural next step was for me to be more involved in honey production. Of course, honey was the draw, but that opened me up to a deeper understanding of the role honeybees play in food security and native plant growth. I now feel that it is my responsibility as a citizen to assist with pollination through beekeeping.

I also began to just marvel at the wonderful secret life of the honeybee, and for me, quietly observing the honeybees work is therapeutic and stress-relieving.”

Many would–be urban beekeepers are held back by their concern that keeping bees in an urban neighborhood might harm their children, pets and neighbors. We asked Sarah how she manages with her three small children.

“I have 3-year old twins and a 5–year old. My children feel very comfortable near the beehives and like to quietly watch the bees on sunny days when they buzz to and fro. They know that a bee will bump into you before it stings, and if they feel a little tap, to simply step out of the way. I have a bee suit for my 5–year old daughter, but she would rather watch quietly 2—3 feet from the hive without her suit on when I have the hive open. The children know that bees only sting to protect themselves or the hive, and our role as beekeepers is to disappear so the bees don’t feel threatened. I like to give the children jobs. The small ones fill up the birdbath with water for the bees, and my older daughter switches out the sugar water at the front of the hive. She likes feeling grown up and helping in a meaningful way. “

And what about her neighbors? How have they reacted? “We originally situated our hives about five feet away from the fenceline, next to the sidewalk where children and their families walk every day back and forth from Bertha Ross Park. I loved working with the bees on warm summer days and was surprised that neighbors felt so comfortable to stop, lean over the fence and watch, amazed, as I lifted up the frames one by one.One day, a six-year old boy was walking with his caretaker, and he stayed for nearly a half an hour asking the most wonderful questions and staring with wide eyes. Finally, he turned to her and said slowly and pleadingly,

“I want to do that.”

It was a beautiful moment and opened my eyes to the healing impact of honeybees.”

As we talk to more and more beekeepers it becomes clear that they may initially begin beekeeping for the honey but that there are many more rewards that ultimately become more important to them than the honey. Like Sarah, they feel that beekeeping becomes almost a civic duty… and the honey sure is sweet!


Interesting Facts, Tidbits and Trivia.

There are only three kinds of bees

Queens – females that live for 1 – 4 years

  • Have a stinger without barbs
  • Her only job is to mate and lays eggs (up to 2,000 per day)

Workers – females that live 4 – 6 months in the winter when her workload is reduced but only live 6 – 8 weeks during the summer when she works until her wings give out

  • Has a barbed stinger and will die if she stings
  • Does all of the work in the hive, including among many others tasks taking care of the queen, nursing larvae, feeding drones cleaning the hive, guard duty, collecting water, producing heat, foraging for nectar and pollen

Drones – males that live until they mate or are starved by the worker bees

  • Have no stinger
  • Only job is to mate, spreading the hives DNA
  • Dies when it mates

A single bee will only make 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime

To make a pound of honey, bees have to fly 50,000 miles and visit 2,000,000 flowers

Bees forage in an area 2 – 10 miles in diameter

They can fly up to 15 MPH – that’s a 4-minute mile!

Flights average 40 – 80- minutes, depending on the available forage

Bees will only collect nectar and pollen from one kind of blossom on each flight, visiting 50 – 100 flowers

Honey was buried with the pharos including King Tutankhamen

Even in the coldest weather, bees keep the hive at 92 -93 degrees if there is brood present

Bees disconnect their wings and contract their flight muscles, like shivering, to produce heat

Bees are not native to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand

Bees were introduced to the East Coast of North America between 800 – 900 AD by the Irish and Norwegians

They were introduced to the West Coast in the 1850’s by ship to California and wagon in Oregon

It would take about 2 tablespoons of honey to fuel a bee’s flight around the world

Each hive and its bees have a distinct scent that is used by guard bees to identify bees from their own hive

There are 40,000 – 60,000 worker bees in a strong hive

The buzz of a bee is the sound of its wings flapping 11,400 per minute

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