Downtown Gets the Buzz About Urban Beekeeping

Urban beekeeping is making a buzz in Downtown York.  Photo courtesy of YRK Creative .

Urban beekeeping is making a buzz in Downtown York. Photo courtesy of YRK Creative.

This blog was adapted from our Spring/Summer 2019 issue of the Downtown York Magazine.

Story by: Michael Vyskocil, Contributor, YRK Creative

Photography by: Contributor, YRK Creative* & Downtown Inc

High above vehicles and pedestrians, pine-scented clouds of smoke drift into the air above the rooftops of Downtown York. A hypnotic hum rhythmically guides the movements of Brandy Reeve as she approaches her beehive with veil and tools in hand. Below her, at the hive’s entrance, bees are preparing to set flight in search of food or returning to home base with their pollen sacks full. Upon opening the hive, Reeve witnesses the activity within: Nurse bees are nurturing freshly laid eggs by the queen bee. Foraging bees are delivering their stores of nectar and pollen, while worker bees are ceaselessly toiling to keep the hive clean and functioning. 

Keeping bees in the city isn’t as strange a hobby as it seems. In Downtown York, Reeve is among several urban dwellers who have taken up the practice of beekeeping in their own backyards and on top of buildings.

Photo of Brandy Reeves,  courtesy of YRK Creative .

Photo of Brandy Reeves, courtesy of YRK Creative.

Pollinating a Beekeeping Passion

Reeve, who began her beekeeping pursuits in 2013, maintains two beehives in Downtown York: one on the rooftop of the building at 7 W. Philadelphia St. and another on the rooftop of the building occupied by Revival Social Club at 19 N. George St. She describes the contortionist-type moves she often has to make to reach them, such as crawling through a window to reach the hive on the roof above Revival Social Club. Despite the physical effort involved, Reeve admits she’s not in it for the honey alone.

“I find my peace when I work with my bees, but I really don’t see them as my bees. I see them as our bees,” she says. “I enjoy keeping bees in the city because they help our community thrive.”

Jeremy Barnes of Seven Valleys, York County, has been keeping bees for close to 18 years. “People get into beekeeping for a number of reasons, and those reasons often involve promoting pollination,” he says. Contrary to popular belief, “there’s evidence to show that bees kept in cities actually do better than those in the country,” he adds, due to the abundance of plant biodiversity that exists compared to rural settings. As they travel through streets, backyards and parks, the bees pollinate plants, trees and flowers as they forage for sources of nourishment.

Over a decade ago, media attention brought to light Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a condition that occurs when worker bees in a colony disappear and leave queen bees behind. However, beekeeper David Papke observes that in the years that followed, “more and more people wanted to get started with bees and become beekeepers. I think it’s because people felt they could help in some way by keeping bees.” Papke — a Stewartstown, York County, beekeeper who has been keeping bees for more than 40 years and maintains about 80 beehives on his property — says that within the York County Beekeepers’ Association alone, membership continues to increase. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the York County Beekeepers’ Association now numbers about 240 members with a growing representation among urban beekeepers

Taking a Sweet Approach to Environmental Awareness

From the savory to the sweet, honey can be used to flavor items ranging from marinades and meats to desserts and drinks. In recognition of its centennial celebration, the York County Beekeepers’ Association partnered with 12 Downtown York restaurants to host Restaurant Honey Week, during the week of May 18–25. During Honey Week, chefs and restaurateurs incorporated honey, provided by members of the association, into dishes that showcased its nuanced flavors.

While Honey Week offered a treat for the palate, it was also a sweet occasion for the York County Beekeepers’ Association to raise awareness about the health of the environment and natural habitats for bees. Papke says that the more people recognize the role they play in fostering a healthy environment for bees — planting pollinator-friendly flowers and vegetables and eliminating chemical insecticide use — the more they can ensure these creatures continue to thrive.

“They (the bees) keep me more than I keep them,” Reeve says. “They teach me how strong a community can be when everyone pitches in and works together.”

Of Hives and Honey

Bees enrich the environment by cross-pollinating plants. Since many varieties of flowers, fruits and vegetables depend on cross-pollination, beekeeping provides an easy and inexpensive way to ensure bountiful and healthy gardens — along with a luscious byproduct, honey. 

Honey itself is a complex mixture containing acids, enzymes, minerals, natural sugars, plant pigments and proteins. There are nearly as many types of honey as there are vintages of wine. Some honeys are almost black, while others are colorless, pale yellow or amber. The taste, texture and color of a particular variety of honey depend on the type of nectar the bees have been collecting. Clover honey, for example, has a mild, candyish flavor, while buckwheat honey is a rich, full-bodied honey that tastes like molasses. However, because bees can make honey from almost any nectar source, there are hundreds of types of honey — so many that honey has no official definition. Its makeup varies widely from drop to drop.

Until the 16th century, hives were made out of tree trunks, straw, or clay. Collecting honeycombs required destroying the hive and killing the colonies. Today’s hives are based on a design developed in 1852 by Lorenzo L. Langstroth, a Yale graduate and pastor. Langstroth determined that in order for the bees to produce generously and survive within a hive, there had to be a “bee space” of 5/16 of an inch between each vertical honeycomb. Today, a modern hive usually houses between 40,000 to 60,000 bees.

Get Buzzin’ with the Bees

Want to get started on your own exploration of backyard beekeeping? The Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education, 4945 Horn Road in Hellam Township, York County, offers a two-year beekeeper training program provided by Mark Gingrich of Gingrich Apiaries. At the end of the first year, participants have the option of receiving a bee colony that they can move to their home properties. Learn more at hornfarmcenter.org/beekeeping.

The York County Beekeepers’ Association (ycbk.org) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1919. It provides its members with a forum for sharing knowledge and educates the public about the benefits of beekeeping.