Even though Marca Engman read countless books, watched YouTube videos and took a beekeeping class before installing her first hive in 2012, she knew she’d need help in the field.
“The whole idea of beekeeping was overwhelming,” she recalls. “Every year is different and every hive is different.”
Rather than working a backyard beehive solo, Engman installed her first hive in the community apiary at Hudson Gardens, a nonprofit garden near Littleton, Colo.
“Beekeeping in a community setting is less threatening, because you have support,” Engman says.
Community apiaries like the one at Hudson Gardens are generating a buzz. Modeled after community gardens, the sweet setups allow beekeepers to maintain hives in public spaces. Beekeepers generally pay a small fee to rent the space but own the equipment and manage the hives, keeping all of the harvested honey.
Although there are no official statistics on the number of community apiaries in the U.S., Tim Tucker, a beekeeper and immediate past president of the American Beekeeping Federation, has witnessed a significant uptick in the number of communities making it easier for residents to keep bees at home and in public spaces.
“Community beekeeping is a great idea,” he says.
Pittsburgh was home to the first community apiary. Burgh Bees opened the site in 2010, turning a once-neglected vacant lot in an urban neighborhood into an apiary for local beekeepers. It has grown to include 25 beehives and a thriving pollinator garden.
Community apiaries have also popped up in cities like Chicago, Roxbury, N.Y., and Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada.
Hudson Gardens established its community apiary in 2009. To secure a space, beekeepers must go through an application process. Instead of a fee, members agree to tend the pollinator garden and participate in at least four outreach programs to educate visitors about honeybees.
“It’s a small commitment for the benefit of working alongside others who share a passion for beekeeping,” notes Amanda Accamando, education and volunteer manager at Hudson Gardens.
For beginning beekeepers, community apiaries offer more than just support: Engman credits the beekeepers at Hudson Gardens for helping her identify nosema, a disease that can wipe out a hive.
“I had no idea what it was,” recalls Engman of the disease that left brown streaks covering the outside of her hive. “The other beekeepers knew right away and suggested treatments. It’s nice to have easy access to all of that knowledge.”
Engman credits the community apiary with giving her the confidence and skills to expand her beekeeping business. She currently maintains 11 hives around Littleton, including two at Hudson Gardens.
Beginning beekeepers are not the only ones buzzing about community apiaries. The public bee yards can be the only options for beekeepers who cannot keep hives at home because of restrictions imposed by home owner associations or local beekeeping laws.
Earlier this year, the city council in Yorkville, Ill., approved a community apiary at a local park to allow residents whose properties cannot comply with local beekeeping restrictions to maintain hives within the city limits. For a $25 annual fee, beekeepers can maintain up to three hives per residential address. All hives must be registered with the Illinois Department of Agriculture and beekeepers must retain liability insurance.
As interest grows, so do the number of applications for space in community apiaries. At Hudson Gardens, Accamando anticipates more applications from beekeepers than the apiary can accommodate. She hopes to add an additional community apiary site in the spring.
“Beekeepers often get creative about finding spaces to put their hives, finding space at urban gardens, in cemeteries or on rooftops,” she explains. “It’s just hard to find space, and that’s why community apiaries are so popular. The application process has gotten competitive.”
Despite the popularity of community apiaries, Accamando acknowledges that the model has challenges: The proximity of the hives to each other increases the likelihood that a disease affecting one hive will spread to another; bees can also “rob” weaker hives, putting the entire colony at risk.
And, when apiaries are located in public spaces, like parks, there can be some alarm about public safety.
After learning a community apiary was approved for a local park in Schaumburg, Ill., in 2013, a neighborhood resident who opposed the apiary told the Chicago Tribune, “My kids and a lot of our neighborhood kids [won’t be able to] play in the backyard.”
Despite the challenges, Tucker strongly supports establishing community apiaries.
“Anything we can do to promote beekeeping, we must do,” he says. “It’s going to take community efforts to save the bees.”
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina journalist and beekeeper who frequently writes about food and farming.