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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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Those Busy Burgh Bees: Urban Beekeeping and More

For a group of farm-to-table locavores invested in low-impact city living, beekeeping has become just another facet of self-sustaining urban agriculture. Like buying artisanal bread at the farmer’s market, catching bass in the Allegheny River or growing backyard tomatoes. Except these tomatoes sting.

Six area apiarists have founded Burgh Bees, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting bees and beekeeping not just in the region’s suburbs and rural vicinities, but in Pittsburgh’s city neighborhoods.

“When most people think of beekeeping, they imagine a bumbling old guy wearing two different socks,” says group member Meredith Meyer Grelli of Squirrel Hill. “We play against type.” The group’s founders include MBA student Meyer Grelli and her husband Alex Grelli, a corporate law student; an architect who’s worked at a top commercial apiary in Hawaii; and an Aliquippa couple comprising an airline pilot and a Penn State communications professor.

The group is dedicated to mentoring new beekeepers from walks of life as diverse as their own, and to educating concerned citizens about how to help bees in their local ecosystems. Burgh Bees is an especially vocal proponent of urban beekeeping, which is exactly what it sounds like—beekeeping in the city, with hives settled in yards, on roof tops and tucked into community gardens between plots of volunteer-tended pollinating plants.

Burgh Bees member Robert Steffes, the Aliquippa pilot, insists urban beekeeping can be done safely—with neighbor approval, of course—because honeybees are naturally more peaceful than yellow jackets, wasps and hornets. “The bee is sacrificing itself to string. So as a rule, it only stings to protect its home,” he says.

Bee-utifying Pittsburgh’s Neighborhoods
Burgh Bees was established in 2008, but kicked into high gear after receiving an $8,000 Sprout Fund grant in February 2009. Just this spring, they’ve established a 10-session training course and enrolled 35 students from as far away as Ligonier and as close as Regent Square and Highland Park. In April, they extracted a feral bee colony from an abandoned Braddock building at Major John Fetterman’s request. And in early May, they met with the Pittsburgh Zoo about adding hives to their horticulture department.

Perhaps Burgh Bee’s most substantial initiative, though, involves repurposing some of the city’s abandoned and vacant spaces into functioning apiaries—like community gardens, but with honey-making hives rather than produce.

Burgh Bees is in various stages of installing “demonstration apiaries” in Braddock, Hazelwood and Mt. Washington where students can practice their craft under the supervision of experienced beekeepers. These three demonstration apiaries are nice, but the group’s larger goal is a community apiary of Pittsburgh’s own, a gathering spot for any urbanite who’d like to keep bees, but might lack the outdoor space or neighbor support. Burgh Bees has found just the location they want—an empty, overgrown, city-owned lot in Homewood across from the East End Brewing Company. It sits against a busway and a rail line, so would be difficult to develop as almost anything else, says Burgh Bees member Meyer Grelli who, before entering CMU’s MBA program, worked with the Western Pennsylvania Brownfields Center doing vacant industrial space revitalization.

Burgh Bees members met with a committee of representatives from the Mayor ’s office and Urban Redevelopment Authority at the end of April, and gained their support to move forward with the Homewood apiary project. There are still many steps, though, until the space is formalized for Burgh Bees use. However, if all goes as planned, Meyer Grelli hopes Burgh Bees will be moving hives into Homewood as early as mid-summer. Burgh Bees hopes, too, to eventually collaborate with potential new neighbors East End Brewing Company on a mead made from local honey.

Sweet Honey on the Rocks
Once the group’s demonstration apiaries yield enough honey, Burgh Bees will be selling their wares at farmer’s markets, including Farmers@Firehouse in the Strip, and at the end of May at Rachel’s Sustainable Feast, an event in Springdale celebrating Rachel Carson’s birthday.

Buying local honey is just one way non-beekeepers can help the region’s bees. Other suggestions include curbing or ceasing use of pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, and replacing front lawns with pollinator plants.

You may wonder, though, why it is bees need our help.

Leading experts, including Pennsylvania’s acting state beekeeper Dennis van Engelsdorp, estimate the U.S. bee population has decreased by about one-third since 2006 due to some vague menace called Colony Collapse Disorder. Because bees are an “environmental mop—they pick up everything around them,” as Burgh Bees member Alex Grelli explains, this disorder could be caused by a number of factors, including pathogens, parasites and all the chemicals we’re pumping into our land, air and water.

Grelli is sure that if one-third of the country’s chickens or cattle were to die under similar circumstances, it would be a top agricultural concern, probably even cause for mass hysteria. But most people have no idea how integral bees are to our ecological wellbeing. Meyer Grelli explains that bees are responsible for one-third of our crop production through plant pollination. “We could live only 12 days without bees,” she says while admitting this considerable number may be part of the “mysticism” of beekeeping rather than inevitable fact.

After so many of bees were lost through Colony Collapse Disorder, beekeeping became incredibly complicated, mostly an exercise in mite-management. “Of the beekeepers who remained, many fight back with strong chemicals, which in effect, produce stronger, pesticide-resistant mites,” says Burgh Bees member Jennifer Wood, the communications professor. “We need to focus on breeding stronger bees rather than stronger mites. And we need to produce more local beekeepers who use natural methods to create a stronger stock of bees in the region.”

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Caralyn Green is the new development news editor for Pop City. Jennifer Baron, who held the position before her, is editor of Pop Filter.

In the pictures: Jennifer Wood (top); Alex Grelli and Meredith Meyer Grelli; Barbara Williams at the Ladora Way Urban Farm in Hazelwood.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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