Urban Gleaning: The Backbone of My Beekeeping Business
A beekeeper reflects on the business and its relationship with nature.
A vast cloud of sun-soaked bodies drifts idly past my bedroom door. All eyes seek the queen. The twist and shimmer of their glistening wings flood my eyes with light. I breathe easily in their presence. The soft scent of lemongrass fills my lungs.
I awake abruptly to an actual swarm moving into one of the empty wooden boxes outside my window. They rush and clamber over one another, pressing stacks of tiny bodies urgently into their new chosen home. As they settle, the ambient smells and sounds of suburban South Florida filter slowly into my awareness. I hesitate to leave the dream. Sewer gas wafts upward from a neighbor’s foundation. Trucks hustle along a nearby road. Wading birds pluck earthworms from beer cans. Several small dogs strain against their leashes seeking squirrels, seeking one another.
Lawnmowers spring to life like a fleet of voracious grazing animals, hungry for ever-greener pastures. They pass unobstructed through the peace of morning, seeking food and uniformity. They are intolerant of wildness, immune to disorder, loud in every way. I run outside, breathless. I am clad in a sarong, hair flying in all directions, amongst the bees. The grass is better groomed than I am. The boxes this swarm chose to inhabit are stacked high, in relative order, ready for the work of spring. It is December. I did not expect a swarm. I left this stack of boxes out some time ago. Most remain empty, but little is wasted. Here in Florida, all things grow. And when they are finished growing, they start again.
Bees Are No Longer Welcome in Southern Florida
Bees make decisions about their housing arrangements using an intelligent social dance. A scout travels in early morning, pressing forward through the humid air. She finds a row of boxes that smell familiar. Maybe they’ve had bees in them before. She enters the one that smells the strongest. It’s hard to say precisely what she does in these most private moments. Presumably, she walks the boundaries of her new abode carefully. Measuring. Tasting. If satisfied, she will return to her mother colony and report her good fortune with a dance that tells not only the quality of her new potential home, but also the distance and direction of travel. The passion of her dance will determine her reception by fellow swarm-mates. Her success is another story altogether. Many colonies think they have found solace, only to be met with a spray can. Vehicles labeled “pest control” patrol the streets, but what exactly is a pest?
I catch, keep and sometimes even save bees in the urban wastelands and agricultural margins of the Sunshine State. I grew up here, surrounded by mayhem and natural beauty, soaked in saltwater and glyphosate runoff. I watched the fields and swamps of my childhood give way to farms and then development. Gated communities pushed wildlife west as the insatiable thirst of humans drained the Everglades to build developments. And yet, tucked away on two acres of mangrove preserve in downtown Fort Lauderdale, I lived out a shoeless, mud-covered childhood.
Urban Beekeeping Is About Preservation
Twenty or so years later, in the spring of 2019, I hung 100 empty boxes baited with swarm lure, caught 80 colonies of bees and started my business. Today, I raise and sell queen bees to keepers across the country for colony expansion and genetic diversity. I also offer live bee removal as an alternative to pest control services. Unwelcome swarms can thereby be safely relocated and thrive in an environment that is safe for both humans and bees.
As I planned this grand heist, I traversed state and private land, seeking green sanctuaries for my buzzing friends. I scoured the satellite images on Google Maps for pockets of wildness, then drove by to check if they were already claimed. There’s a large homeless population here, and often, the spots I targeted were ideal for bees and people alike. I’ve spent more than a few nights tucked into the hidden green margins of urban life. Perhaps that is why I started this business: I was, in all ways, in search of a home. There are many stories I could tell about why the bees need saving, but the truth is that I needed it more than they did. I needed solace, purpose, motivation and meaning. I needed camaraderie, long silences and many hours of work. I needed food, water, shelter and rest. We all need a safe place to rest. I share mine with the bees.
Food Gleaning Is Key to My Operation
Along the borders of the largest subtropical wetlands area in the continental U.S., I found abundance and degradation in equal parts. Limbs heavy with tropical fruit overhang torn sheets of foam and old shoes piled into shopping carts near major highways. High-rise condos line the coast. Lawns consume the landscape. Small saplings grow from floating islands of trash. The flood of humans is merciless. Gluttonous. Selfish in the extreme. Biodiversity is threatened by loss of habitat, and almost everything is touched with poison.
And yet, every cavity left by humans in their mad rush to build paradise is filled with bees. They move into mailboxes, trailers, walls, planters and composters. They swarm out of chimneys and into the trunks of cars. They build their sweet, lovely, fascinating homes with the same stalwart enthusiasm here as they would in the purest of nature. In the heart of pre-apocalyptic civilization, the bees remain wild.
In addition to swarm catching and general apiary management, I remove bees from housing developments and farms alike. I cut their combs from the edges of buildings and attach them with rubber bands to small wooden sticks. I gather all the bees in a box and move them to approved locations. I fight to keep these locations for more than a season. People sell the land to corporations, who strip it of forage and fill it with concrete, all the while claiming to support the local ecosystem by removing invasive plants. Everything here is bought and sold, including the bees.
The Contradictory Nature of Beekeeping in Florida
Beekeepers swarm from all over the country in the fall to build up their hives on Brazilian pepper, the very plant the state is trying to eradicate. Those bees grow fat on natural food, but by December, the nectar flow stops and they are pumped full of corn syrup. Some commercial operations keep entire warehouses of sugar for winter feeding. Very little of it comes from Florida, which makes me wonder why we drained the Everglades to begin with. But that doesn’t matter when spring is upon us. Bees must grow, by any means necessary, to make grade for California almond pollination.
Huge trucks packed with heavy boxes travel west in February and my little hives breathe a sigh of relief while they are gone. We struggle to compete. I make their populations far denser than they should be, in order to comply with state standards for “safe” queen production. I feed them until I wonder if my teeth are rotting by proxy. The sugar I pull from dumpsters is overflowing with organic produce, cast away to rot and then defended halfheartedly by disenchanted security officers. If I show up about an hour after closing, everything is free. The lumber I find is behind business and construction zones. I check Craigslist and Facebook marketplace for free roadside objects of all types. Coconuts? Pallets? Yes, please.
Urban Beekeeping Connects the Past and the Future
My tiny slice of paradise lies midway down Palm Beach County. I am less than 15 minutes by car from the Florida Everglades. Many important designations characterize my Southern home. World Heritage Site, Biosphere Reserve, Wetland of International Significance, predominant freshwater recharge areas for all of South Florida. There is no other ecosystem quite like it, and yet the “River of Grass” no longer flows. And the native people? These are sad stories. Cruel. They say the ecosystem here is found nowhere else on earth. But I wonder, is it found at all? Or is it lost? Are we all lost? And how do we find our way home?
The questions that reside here are as heavy as the summer air. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of them, or crowded by the extreme overpopulation. And yet each evening, after a brief thunderstorm, the pressure lifts and a cool breeze comes in off the ocean. The setting sun paints buildings and beaches alike with brilliant strokes of color. Tiny clouds awash with pink and orange bring magic back into this strained and pungent world. The sky sparkles with small yellow and black bodies as bees fly back and forth to their hive entrances, glimmering softly until the moment of darkness. The ocean presses inward, saltwater travels into underground aquifers, the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Homestead sinks imperceptibly lower into the mire, and I count my blessings. It’s a pirate’s life with bees.