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Urban Beekeeping Playing a Vital Role in Milwaukee's Ecology

Sep. 5, 2017
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Urban beekeeping has become popular in Milwaukee, mirroring trends in large cities around the world such as New York, Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, Toronto, London and Paris. The interest in Milwaukee has been “like a giant wave building,” says Linda Reynolds of the Apiculture Program at the Milwaukee County University of Wisconsin-Extension. The UW-Extension started offering beekeeping classes in 2008, and “interest has done nothing but grow,” she says. The City of Milwaukee legalized beekeeping in 2011 and has issued around 40 permits thus far.

Urban groups such as BeeVangelists, Victory Garden Initiative and Urban Ecology Center all manage hives, as do individuals. Pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the U.S. economy, with honeybees contributing $15 billion of that, according to a 2014 White House estimate. Since 1947, the number of managed bee populations has declined from 6 million to just less than 3 million; likewise, wild bee populations have also declined. These declines have occurred because of habitat fragmentation, insecticide and herbicide use and disease. According to a recent NPR report, bee shortages have even prompted large-scale hive heists in California. 

In 2015, Home Gr/own, a program run by the City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office, partnered with a number of community groups, including Growing Power, Walnut Way and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, to create six pocket parks and 14 orchard parks across the city. The groups planted more than 250 fruit trees and thousands of perennials, including many native plants, with the intention of creating food forests, as well as managing storm water and attracting pollinators.

Since then, “bees and butterflies have come back en masse,” says Tim McCollow, Home Gr/own program manager. “There was one day last summer when I was walking toward Gillespie Park, at 14th and Clark streets, and I heard Gillespie Park before I saw it because the bees and butterflies have completely migrated to that site. The same thing is happening in the other parks and orchards.”

 

Redeeming the Environment

At Redeemer Lutheran Church, 631 N. 19th Street, bees became an integral part of the church in 2015 when it won a grant from Marquette University for social innovation. Bee the Change, a partnership among Redeemer Lutheran Church, the Zeidler Center for Public Discussion, Marquette University and BeeVangelists, is a program that introduces Redeemer’s homeless lunch guests to the world of bees and beekeeping. The lunch guests get to meet the bees in the rooftop apiary at the church and have opportunities for training as beekeepers and community bee advocates and educators.

“I’m all about how does this affect community,” says Charles Koenen, Bee the Change program director and executive director of BeeVangelists. “So, when I am down here with a stigmatized population of homeless people who get frowned upon by the neighborhood, I look at the bees on the roof, and say they’re a stigmatized population that gets frowned upon by the neighborhood, too. I say, can’t we get the two of them together and learn about things?”

Koenen further observes: “Some of the guests don’t have a lot going for them. They just live on a time clock that says, ‘I’ve got to be at the mission at 6; I’ve got to be at St. Ben’s at 5; and I’ve got to be here for lunch at 12, and that’s it.’ But they are really good people who had just one thing go wrong with them in their life. So, I just don’t even talk about that, and I say come on up and see the bees.”

He has developed several disciples from the lunch program. They care for and learn about the bees and beekeeping and sometimes go out into the larger community as bee advocates and educators. “When they start to talk to people, they are immediately given respect that they don’t get when they’re just somebody on the street,” Koenen says. “With that respect is this responsibility; they feel their wind horse has lifted. That’s kind of a neat thing.”

Libby Maddox, a summer intern at Bee the Change and a Marquette nursing student, introduces the lunch guests to the bees and teaches them about the hive. “It’s a great place for people to get over their fear of bees, learn more about them and just be people and have a conversation,” Maddox says.

Bee the Change also provides spiritual benefits for the Redeemer Lutheran Church congregation. “The congregational gift of this program is that it has become another way to talk about discipleship,” says Pastor Lisa Bates-Froiland. “With the hive, the bees are going out, pollinating, helping, spreading good things, bringing some things back into the hive. It’s going out and returning, going out and returning. That’s true of discipleship, as well.” But not all benefits are spiritual, however. Bates-Froiland says the bee products that Redeemer sells on its website bring in about $10,000 annually—revenues that are used to help pay for the Noon Run lunch program. On weekdays, about 50 to 60 people eat lunch at the church; as many as 170 people attend the Sunday meal.

 

Strategies to Save the Bees

Linda Reynolds is glad to see the revived interest in beekeeping and the growth in attendance in her classes at the UW-Extension. She cautions, however, that successful beekeeping requires a bit of knowledge: “There are a lot of hard lessons to be learned in beekeeping, and I think I learned most of my lessons the hard way. I feel good about spreading what I know, so people can avoid that.” She also says some attendees at beekeeping classes actually want to be beekeepers, while others want to learn about bees and how to help them survive.

Populations of domesticated bees have faced problems brought on by reduced habitats for foraging in both urban and rural areas, heavy pesticide use and disease. Wild bee populations also are in decline. For example, the rusty patched bumblebee, native to Wisconsin, was placed upon the endangered species list last March.

If people want to provide a rich habitat for bees, Reynolds says, they can make good choices about the trees and plants they raise. She says some of the earliest blooming trees are willows and silver maples, which are pollinator magnets. Lindens also are very attractive to pollinators, as are dandelions. Flowering herbs provide good foraging for bees if people do not want to grow flowers. She cautions against the use of pesticides and herbicides and the use of seeds with built-in herbicides and pesticides. She advises consumers to ask questions about the plants they buy from greenhouses and to be aware that some of the commercially produced flowers have a systemic neonicotinoid in them—an insecticide that can poison the larvae of pollinators.

She says certain plants have been hybridized so much that they no longer have nectaries to produce nectar. “Milkweed disappeared because of all the spraying,” she says. “Roundup ready corn is wiping out milkweed. The bees love the milkweed flower. It’s a high-nectar, honey-producing flower. And, of course, the monarch butterfly needs the whole milkweed plant.”

Nick DeMarsh, food system developer at Groundwork Milwaukee, says that Groundwork takes a holistic approach and installs rain gardens at their community gardens around the city—in part because they provide habitat for pollinators, which are so important for growing vegetables. “This is really a process of recreating the natural ecosystem,” DeMarsh says. “In short, we recognize that healthy gardens are about much more than installing boxes. It’s about the entire ecosystem; protecting the water and encouraging pollinator habitat are important components of growing healthy vegetables.”

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