December 16, 2013

Save a Life, Become an Urban Beekeeper

When entire colonies of rural honeybees began dying off around 2006, environmentalists started buzzing about the importance of bees in pollinating the foods we eat and flowers we enjoy. Enthusiasts began urban beekeeping as a way to bring bees into cities to help gardens and produce flourish.

Tending to a bee habitat on a Somerville rooftop.Tending to a bee habitat on a Somerville rooftop.

In Boston's South End, Best Bees provides and manages more than 200 honey bee hives for businesses and individuals. Best Bees founder Noah Wilson-Rich studied bee immunology at Tufts University and has spoken widely on beekeeping, including a 2012 TED talk about why cities need healthy honey bees and numerous presentations to colleges, school groups, and local organizations.

We sat down with Noah to find out why bees matter to cities and how he got interested in beekeeping.

Noah Wilson-Rich, the man behind the bees.Noah Wilson-Rich, the man behind the bees.

Zipcar: What impact does urban beekeeping have on cities?

Noah: It's a huge benefit and there are really two parts to it. There's the human view and the bees’ view. We need pollinators to get fruits and vegetables. It's one thing to just plant seeds, but if you don't have any pollinators transferring pollen from flower to flower, then you won't get a crop. We need bees for productive gardens.

The bee's view is really unique. What we're seeing from urban beehives in Cambridge and Boston is that they produce more honey on average than hives outside of the city and they survive longer, but we don't know why. We can speculate that it could be that there are fewer pesticides in the city versus agricultural lands. It could be that it's slightly warmer in the city, so that they survive the winter better.

Tools of the trade.Tools of the trade.

How did you get involved?

I started my PhD at Tufts in 2006, that's when bees started disappearing. Honeybees that are infected by nosema (an infectious fungus) don't look sick. They’re just not producing much honey and they’re dying.We don't really know why. Instead of looking at why they're dying—lots of people around the world already do that—my research has always been on how to make bees healthier. I'm a scientist first and a beekeeper second. However, getting money to conduct  research was the biggest challenge at grad school.

So I started Best Bees to help fund that research.  The company started with no money, no inventory, no nothing. I started a Facebook page for free and basically said, "Selling beehives. Does anybody want one?" We've grown basically from 2010 in my living room to a beekeeping lab with 17 of us.

Delicious, local honey, thanks to the bees.Delicious, local honey, thanks to the bees.

How does Best Bees work?

We sell the beehives to clients to fund the research. Our clients own the bees, the beehives, all the honey, and anything that the bees produce, which is a unique model. Our beekeepers check in on all the beehives about once a month to make sure that there’s no sign of disease.

Checking in on the hives.Checking in on the hives.

What are the best ways for readers to get more urban beekeeping options available in their city?

Anybody can create a habitat. It's really just planting flowers, which helps not only bees, but also butterflies, and helps to promote nature. is a great resource for all things that are happening around the country and anybody can post an event. We've worked with local Girl Scout troops and local schools. We're also writing a book, it's called The Bee: A National History. It's coming out next year with Princeton University Press. We're just trying to make information about all bees accessible to everyone.

Noah Wilson-Rich in front of Best Bees in the S. End.Noah Wilson-Rich in front of Best Bees in the S. End.

For more information about bees and beekeeping, check out and