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Natural Awakenings Milwaukee Magazine

Urban Beekeeping: A Win-Win-Win: Backyard and Rooftop Beepod Hives Create a Sustainable Buzz

Jul 25, 2011 11:13PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Charlie Koenen speaks for the bees during a Beesentation for kids

It is impossible to estimate the agricultural economics of the honeybee, which pollinates more than three-quarters of the staple crop plants that feed humankind, as well as nearly 90 percent of the world’s flowering plants. Were it not for this industrious insect, we could not enjoy many of the fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains that make up our diets—while searching for nectar, honeybees pollinate crops that account for more than one of every three bites of food we eat.

From evidence of centuries past, archeologists have determined that the pioneering exploration of the United States and the flourishing of crops that fed settlers followed in the flight path of honeybees brought to America in 1622. Today, a dwindling bee population is directly impacting all Wisconsin farms, particularly Milwaukee’s small urban farms such as Sweetwater Organics and Growing Power, as well as the city’s landscape.

In search of a solution that would bring the wonders of beekeeping to potential backyard and rooftop beekeepers to help restore a healthier decentralized bee population, two dedicated individuals are putting their creative skills to work. Jesse Spanaus is the main beekeeper at Growing Power, a national nonprofit organization and land trust, based in Milwaukee. He and his partner, Charlie Koenen, a former Growing Power public relations consultant, were determined to build a better commercial beehive that would be less stressful for honeybees, while making the tasks of beekeeping less cumbersome.

To entice the tiny Apis mellifera into staying longer in the same hive, the partners designed Beepods, with the help of Dave Hinterberg, of BurnWerks. Their horizontal top bar design, a radical deviation from the traditional, vertically stacked Langstroth hive, is creating a buzz among beekeepers who have used the conventional, vertical design since the Industrial Revolution. The two entrepreneurs also designed a community outreach and education program.

The Latest Buzz in the Bee World

The Beepod, produced and assembled locally, is an updated version of a 2,000-year-old horizontal hive design borrowed from the ancient Greeks and Romans. “They copied the idea from Africa’s Kenyan tribes, where golden nectar was harvested from bees kept in fallen, hollowed-out logs,” advises Spanaus. Prior to that time, humans had never found a way to keep bees alive after harvesting their honey.

The Beepod’s less disruptive horizontal top bar model allows bees to make their own hive inside the cradle-shaped pod by drawing honeycomb from bars laid on the top; this promotes more natural, less stressful interaction with the insects.

Beekeepers can start a Beepod hive with a modest investment; they receive a queen and a box of approximately 3,000 bees, which theyDavid Hinterburg (left) and Jesse Spanaus luring bees into the swarm box add into an inner chamber within the Beepod. The bees begin drawing comb from the wax-tipped ends of the top bars and as soon as the queen can, she begins to lay 1,000 to 1,500 eggs a day. The inner chamber is small, allowing just a few bees in order to regulate the temperature.

As the colony grows, more bars can be added, expanding the inner chamber until it fills the entire Beepod. Eventually, the bee colony starts producing honeycombs at the ends of the inner chamber. Honey and pollen are harvested from these end bars, which get replaced with new bars. “The first 10 bars are for the bees to use during winter, and any other bars can be enjoyed by the beekeeper or sold,” says Spanaus.

Bees and the Urban Landscape

“Few people understand that the mono-crops of industrialized agriculture limit a bee’s diet,” Spanaus continues. “Just like humans, they actually prefer a broad-spectrum diet, which is why they gather from several different plants when available.” A diverse bee diet was once prevalent in rural settings, but today variety is now more widespread in urban settings, where boulevards are planted with flowers and trees and homeowners tend backyard flower gardens, potted blooms and hanging baskets. “Generally, urban beekeepers can rely upon a year-round flow of honey, even though the flavor will vary as the seasons change,” says Spanaus, who points out that before the population of beekeepers can grow significantly, some misconceptions and fears need to be allayed.

Demystifying Beekeeping through Education

“While we’re anxious to close the local food loop with honeybees that can pollinate everything we grow within a five-mile radius, we recommend that people come to our ‘bee-sentation’ advocacy presentation,” recommends Spanaus. Interested individuals can then attend an actual hands-on hive inspection, where they get to suit up and interact with the bees. The next step is the classroom certification course offered at Urban Ecology Center, Sweetwater Organics and Boerner Botanical Gardens, where classes are held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on three consecutive Mondays.

An Online Beekeeper’s Community

Jesse Spanaus trims a branch containing a swarm of 3,000 bees
Jesse Spanaus trims a branch containing a swarm of 3,000 bees
Of all the hats Spanaus wears—artist, entrepreneurial business owner, ironworker, beekeeper, tree-cutter and construction worker—he loves beekeeping and Beepods the best. To satisfy his interest in the details of the insects’ lives, Spanaus likes to read about their social behavior, which may be why he’s so eager to enrich online communications between fellow beekeepers. “I recommend that beekeepers visit our Beepods Facebook page regularly and become part of a community that posts pictures and videos of their backyard beehive adventures,” advises Spanaus, who says the Beepod’s website question-and-answer format is invaluable to anyone who enjoys learning from the experience of others.

A Sustainable Future

Barely able to curb his enthusiasm for a bright and collaborative future for Beepods, Spanaus estimates that the company will be able to institute an internship program similar to the one he was part of at Growing Power. Currently, 15 people work on the various production and assembly stages of Beepods’ do-it-yourself packages. The sustainable organization purchases wood from a local Indian reservation, and the assembly and hardware installation are completed at a rented space in Sweetwater Organics.

“Beekeeping is a win-win-win situation,” says Spanaus. “When it comes to urban beekeeping, humans, bees and the planet all emerge as victors.”

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