Urban Apiaries Keep Bees Safe on Broward's Public Land

Because every bee needs a home.
Because every bee needs a home.
Photo by John Coldwell of Urban Farming Institute

The Broward Beekeepers Association was worried when the possibility arose that it would lose the north-central Broward County tract where community apiaries are located. Some used it to temporarily house bees rescued from unwanted locations. If the association lost the plot, it would be harder find new homes for rescued hives. That could potentially open the door to chemical pest control and declining populations of the most important pollinator of fruits and vegetables.

But BBA member Daniel Lewis, an at-large board member of the Broward Regional Health Planning Council (BRHPC), had a solution brewing: What if microapiaries were established on public land on a number of venues across Broward County?

His idea had been around in the beekeeping community for about four or five years, BBA member/Urban Farming Institute apiary director John Coldwell says. But Lewis used his political know-how and connections to make it happen. "Jon Albee [Urban Farming Institute founder] and I get a lot of credit related to this," Coldwell adds. "I want to give credit where credit is due — the entire concept on public land was Dan Lewis' idea."

Starting in spring of 2015, Lewis, Albee, and Coldwell went down a path that recently culminated with the grand opening of Florida's first microapiary on public land. The Discovery Farm and Gardens at Jaco Pastorius Park is the prototype for a countywide effort to save declining honeybee populations through rescue efforts, sustainable management, and research.

Bee populations in Florida have been hit hard over the past two decades. In the early-aughts, there was fear of invading aggressive Africanized bees. So the state took action, killing off large numbers of Apidae, good and bad. By 2006-07, it was obvious those measures were not working. Africanized bees bred with western honeybees, creating healthier, calmer mixed-breed populations that are resistant to disease like pesky varroa mites, a deadly apis parasite.

Even so, bee populations continued to be attacked. In the mid-'00s, Colony Collapse Disorder was discovered. That's a phenomenon in which bees abandon hives and eventually perish. During the 2006-07 winter, commercial apiarists reported hive losses near 32 percent. (Losses of 18.9 percent are considered economically sustainable.) The following year, even more disappeared. We lost approximately 36 percent. The direct cause is still up for debate. Many blame sublethal effects of pesticides, but there were also pathogens, parasites (like the nasty varroa), and nutrition issues.

Much of the food we eat relies on pollinators like ants, bats, birds, and butterflies. Among the products they help produce are almonds, apples, plums, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Bees are the workhorses of the lot. Without them, the human food supply would be in critical danger.

Because of this, Apidae have become a huge topic of conversation. The State of Florida, Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, and the University of Florida are trying to increase bee populations. "Everybody wants the best for bees," says Coldwell. "What we want is nice bees, everywhere, and a way to educate people so they're not afraid of them."

To make it happen, Lewis helped secure a $5,000 grant through BRHPC. "Their emphasis is to better the health of the community at large in Broward County," says Coldwell. "That covers hospitals, food programs, farming, and other areas. Bees fit right into that."

The apiary was not the first garden program funded by the council. BRHPC helped get Dania Beach People's Access to Community Horticulture (PATCH) $35,000 for start-up costs.

Lewis hit stumbling blocks with the city. Coincidentally, someone from the PATCH program called Coldwell for a beehive, and he just happened to be rescuing one from a location close to the garden. That's when he met Lewis. Within several days, Coldwell introduced Lewis to Albee, knowing the Dania Beach apiary. Given Albee's relationship with the city, through the Urban Farming Institute, they decided to try Oakland Park instead.

Albee and Coldwell took over from there. Together, they went through presentations at parks & recreation, zoning, and the building department. "It took about five minutes," says Albee. "And the city said, 'Sure.'?"

It then went to the state, which eventually sent out an inspector to advise and sign off, certifying that the hives qualify under Florida's best management practices.

To avoid direct contact between bees and the public, the apiary is surrounded by a six-foot fence. Coldwell, who makes a living as a general contractor, installed windows so people could see the action. The chance of coming into direct contact with a bee is minuscule with this setup. When apis leave the hive, they fly vertically, usually four or five feet in the air. With a tall fence, their flight path is forced even higher. They then forage two to six miles from the hive, so they're not concentrated in a small area. Regardless, bees are not aggressive when looking for food.

Albee and Coldwell check the ten hives multiple times per week, far more often than most beekeepers. They are maintaining the necessary logs to develop information, acquire data, and obtain support for more grants.

In addition to other agriculture-related courses and cooking lessons, the Urban Farming Institute is now offering classes on beekeeping. Every Saturday, whether there is a specific class or not, someone will be onsite to answer questions about the bees. Albee is also in talks with Broward College about initiating certificate programs in apiary management. "We want to have a vigorous conversation about turning this [urban beekeeping] into jobs and what this would look like," adds Albee.

Since Oakland Park put its name on the program and it's now up and running, other municipalities have reached out to the team. "The idea of apiary on public venues has been around for a while," says Coldwell. "They [other cities] ran away politically, because when you talk about bees, you talk about getting stung. It was the City of Oakland Park who had the courage to say yes, to allow Jon Albee to put it on a public park."

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