Honey bees have had their worst year yet in 2013. Colony collapse disorder is ravaging the U.S. bee population, claiming 31.1% of the nation's pollinators. For large monoculture farms such as the almond industry in California, this means there are barely enough bees to truck in to pollinate the crop. The crisis should be serving as a wake-up call to the bee and agriculture industry.
One bright spot locally is Mad Urban Bees and its ongoing beekeeping classes.
Nathan Clarke, owner of the Mad Urban Bees apiary, says that "outside of town, there is a food desert for the bee. It's soybeans and corn and alfalfa. But even alfalfa is now being harvested before it blooms. There isn't anything for bees to eat between these crops." The city turns out to be a decent place for a bee, with flowers and flowering trees.
Clarke, who has been a beekeeper for the past seven years, manages 80 volunteer hives around the Madison area. He also teaches classes in his backyard throughout the summer and fall. The classes are unique in that participants have the opportunity to suit-up and interact with active hives. "Most [other] classes are held in January or February, when there is nothing else for beekeepers to do," says Clarke. "But the downside is students don't get to see bees. Nothing you watch on YouTube is going to replace smelling and hearing a hive."
While it may be nearly too late for students to start their own hives this summer, it isn't too early to plan for next year; starting to keep bees has an involved setup process, as Clarke's three-hour classes jam-packed full of information make clear. Classes for 2013 are available almost every week throughout the summer and into the fall.
Students learn about building and maintaining hives, how to deal with swarming -- when a hive decides it wants to split into two -- and how to winterize. Then everyone dons beekeeping suits for a look into the two hives Clarke keeps in his backyard.
In 2012, Madison passed the nation's most progressive bee ordinance. Middleton soon followed suit. This has opened beekeeping to the cities' residents, and interest in home hives has been intense. Classes are often full.
Clarke is hopeful the interest will do a small part in helping the at risk bee. "I feel that urban beekeeping can save the honey bee," he says. "It makes us think about our environment differently. People think about pesticides. People ask me, 'What can I do to attract bees in my yard?' Well, start by not killing your dandelions. They're one of the earliest, best sources of food."
Mad Urban Bees also sells honey for retail at Bloom Bake Shop, The Soap Opera, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Orange Tree Imports and Underground Butcher. (Its subscription honey CSA is closed for 2013.) Following class, Clarke gives participants samples of honey he has collected from different neighborhoods in Madison at different times of the year. The flavors range from intensely bright and floral to dark and caramelly. All of the honey is raw as opposed to being processed, which means it retains its enzymes. Even in comparison to farmers' market honey, it is shockingly good.
The urban beekeeping classes are a fascinating way to spend an afternoon; it is informative even for those not planning to start a new life as a beekeeper. But for those planning to begin a hive, startup equipment costs run from $300-400.
Clarke currently has more volunteers for hive placements than he has time to maintain, and there is a waiting list. Starting a new hive may be the only option for now. Clarke also assures students that he is available to help via email.