If your immediate reaction to the sight of a buzzing bee is to flinch, flail or flee, Danielle Bender wants to convert you into a believer.
Bender harbors such passion and admiration for honeybees that her mission is to increase the local distressed population by placing hives in public spaces, community gardens and parks throughout Miami.
Bender nurtures her own hive in a vacant lot in an industrial section of Little River, envisioning that one day it will be filled with fruit trees and flowering plants — and producing a liquid gold mine of honey.
“Bees are stuck with a stigma that causes people to fear them rather than respect and appreciate them,” Bender said. “I used to swat and freak out, but now I know that’s the wrong thing to do because we give off hormones that they sense.
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“Bees should not be intimidating. I’d like to humanize bees.”
Tending her colony is like watching the characters in an engrossing TV miniseries. In a bee’s short six-week lifespan, he or she works as a nurse, janitor, guard, wax maker, forager.
“I have a very different view of community after observing how resourceful bees are as they work together as a team, never deviating from their roles and jobs,” said Bender, who has never been stung by one of her bees. Often, she wears a bee suit while she coos and converses with her brood. “We can learn a lot from bees, and that can translate into helping our own neighborhoods thrive and feel a sense of civic pride.”
The urban beekeeping movement is growing in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Remember when raising chickens was all the rage? Raising bees is the new buzz. In Philadelphia, home to some 40,000 vacant lots and rooftops where bees can forage, there are 400 registered bee colonies tended by 75 beekeepers. Each hive can contain up to 100,000 bees and produce 15-20 pounds of honey per year.
Bees are essential pollinators of 30 percent of the foods we eat. After traveling up to four miles and collecting nectar and pollen from as many as 100 flowers in a day, a bee flies home and regurgitates nectar into the mouth of a house bee, who spits it into the cell of a honeycomb. The pollen is mixed with honey to make bee bread, bees’ basic fuel.
There are at least 100,000 backyard beekeepers in the U.S., and a $15 billion commercial beekeeping industry utilized by farmers of avocados, cherries, grapes, apples, watermelons, coffee and sunflowers. The almond growers of California rely on the workers who inhabit 1.4 million hives.
But the bee population has been in serious decline for the past decade because of habitat destruction, climate change, pesticides and Deformed Wing Virus, which is spread by varroa mites.
Miami native Bender, 31, was inspired to become a beekeeper after she heard about the bee massacre caused by Zika spraying last year. Then she wanted to spread the word about the bee as “a boon to society, not a bogeyman.”
The benefits would include education through workshops, mentorships pairing experienced beekeepers with novices and field trips for kids. Beautification of neglected and underutilized areas. Proliferation of community gardens. The production of vitamin- and anti-oxidant-rich honey, which each neighborhood could consume or sell. For example, Bender has been talking to people who live near Goulds Park about their garden. Add a hive that churns out honey, then harvest, package and label it Goulds Gold.
“I can see local artists designing the hives; honey tastings; students learning about biology and ecology; productive urban farms; flowering landscapes,” she said. “It’s a way for people to take ownership of their neighborhood.”
John Coldwell, a backyard beekeeper in Fort Lauderdale, is showing Bender what he has done in Broward, where he has opened micro apiaries in Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek and at the Urban Farming Institute garden in Oakland Park. He has approval from Davie, Plantation, Deerfield Beach and Coral Springs and the Broward parks department to open four more, and has requests pending from six other cities. The state’s Bureau of Bee Management issues permits for apiaries on public land.
“At first, there was some apprehension about putting hives in parks, but we have not heard one negative response,” Coldwell said. “Often, I’m removing feral hives and replacing them with gentle hives occupied by nice bees.”
Coldwell, who placed a hive in his garden six years ago to improve pollination, has taught more than 1,000 schoolchildren about bees.
“I’ve become a bee geek,” he said. “If I suit you up and get you inside a hive, I’ll make you a beekeeper, too. It’s addictive, zen-like, holistic, fascinating — and we’re providing a valuable service to local ecology.”
Pollinators are “critical to our survival,” said Paul Vitro, division chief for the Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department’s Education, Conservation and Outreach (ECO) program.
“We would have to do this safely in the right places with the right signage, but this is a great opportunity for people to interact actively with the environment,” he said.
Bender, who works as a grant administrator for the nonprofit Bas Fisher Invitational artist-run space and lives in Buena Vista, says she is still learning about bees — a never-ending process.
“We need bees more than they need us,” she said. “Without bees, there goes part of our food supply. In parts of China, they have to resort to hand-pollinating plants in order to keep up food production.”
She visits her hive once a week.
“You have to identify the long-bodied lady as the queen — she often has a bunch of attendant bees crowded around her — then make sure she is laying eggs, up to 2,000 per day,” she said. “Sometimes you’ll hear a high-pitched scream from the queen. Swarming occurs when the bees are relocating to a new spot. They are always doing weird stuff and it’s never boring.”
Coldwell describes a colony as “the perfect democracy in a bee condo.”
Bender has overcome her fear of bees by falling in love with them.
“Don’t wave your arms and run, and don’t wear black — they’ll think you’re a giant bear coming to steal their honey,” she said. “Bees are not aggressive unless provoked. Bees are not interested in stinging people. They’re too busy.”