Hyatt Regency Atlanta rooftop bee garden

The bee garden sits 25 floors above Peachtree Street at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. (Photo: Hyatt Regency Atlanta/Facebook)

Hyatt Regency Atlanta Executive Chef Martin Pfefferkorn is lucky to have a nearby garden where he can pick basil and other fresh produce that help fulfill his passion for bringing local, seasonal food to hotel dining.

The garden, in this case, is a hotel rooftop oasis 25 floors above Atlanta’s landmark Peachtree Street. Pfefferkorn is also lucky that there are two hives on the roof with thousands of honeybees to pollinate vegetables such as tomatoes, beans and peppers and a full selection of herbs that are growing in raised beds in the aerial garden. (That's Pfefferkorn tending the rooftop bees in the photo below.)

The scene atop the Atlanta hotel is similar to others that are playing out in cities all over the country. In some of the nation’s biggest cities — New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco — and in smaller ones, such as Somerville, Mass., beehives are being installed and maintained on the rooftops of hotels, restaurants and other downtown buildings, often with people on the streets below unaware of their new neighbors.

Hyatt Regency Atlanta executive chef Martin Pfefferkorn tends to honeybees on the hotel roof“Cities are becoming more open to honeybees as urban dwellers and as part of the urban fabric than they have in the past,” said Heather Wooten, senior planner and program director at ChangeLab Solutions, a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif., that works with local and state leaders nationwide to create laws and policies that improve community health. Attitudes about bees began changing about five years ago, Wooten said. That’s when local lawmakers and urban planners across the country started removing or relaxing zoning and municipal codes that regulate urban agriculture, Wooten explained. Rules about beekeeping are often updated along with broader policy changes to promote urban agriculture, she added.

To ensure the hives are productive, disease-free and adequately maintained, chefs, building owners and property managers often partner with local beekeeping organizations to install and maintain them. All of this is welcome news to Tim Tucker, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation. “With the plight of honeybees, it’s very encouraging that so many cities are allowing inner-city beekeeping,” he said from his home in Niotaze, Kansas.

Less pesticide exposure compared to residential areas

“Keeping bees in cities will help the overall bee population because the bees in the cities will not be exposed to high level of agricultural chemicals that might be present outside of those areas,” he added. “The main pesticide problem in residential areas seems to be mosquito spraying, which beekeepers should be aware of. Checking with local health officials to take protective action when spraying is scheduled is paramount if bees have an opportunity for exposure."

Cities are providing bees, which can travel as far as a mile and a half from the hive to forage, with the three things they need to survive, according to Tucker. Those three things are:

  1. A nectar source, which provides sugar and carbohydrates.
  2. A pollen source, which provides vitamins and minerals.
  3. Water, which not only quenches thirst but also helps cool the hive.
Flowers that cities plant in medians, parks or planters, many of which are non-native and bloom throughout much of the year, in addition to vegetable gardens — whether they are on rooftops or in community gardens on vacant lots — and decorative fountains all supply bees with these life-giving needs, Tucker said.

For building owners, property managers, chefs and others who would like to begin urban beekeeping, Tucker says the first step is to educate yourself about local ordinances and laws that regulate beekeeping. In short, find out if your city allows beekeeping. If it does, he suggests contacting a local beekeeping association about installing and maintaining hives. In most cases, they are only too happy to do this.

bees on honeycomb“The local groups know such critical factors as area weather conditions, how to test for diseases and how to properly install the hives to keep the bees from swarming and leaving the hives,” Tucker said. For those interested in contacting a local beekeeping group, Tucker said the American Beekeeping Federation has a list of beekeeping associations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Canada.

If your city doesn’t yet allow urban beekeeping, don’t despair, Wooten advises. You just need to convince your city officials that bees can be a happy and productive part of urban life. “Responsible beekeeping does not pose a threat to public safety,” she emphasized.

Check out how other cities have made it work

Wooten also has some advice for cities that don’t allow beekeeping but are considering giving a green light to hives and are looking for guidelines in changing their codes: Look at the codes of other communities that have successfully made the switch. One example that she readily points to is the Somerville Urban Agriculture Ordinance (pdf). It spells out in plain English some simple regulations about residential beekeeping that can be modified or adapted for any city in America, she said.

Some of those regulations include:

  • Requiring permits to keep bees
  • Requiring permits to sell honey produced by the bees
  • Requiring the owner of the hives to live on the property where the bees are kept
  • Limiting the number of hives
  • Informing neighbors that you have hives
  • Establishing setbacks for hives from property lines
  • Requiring fences with height minimums to create flyaway barriers
  • Restricting location of hives to backyards
Wooten says she’s not aware of any urban agriculture codes that specifically address installing and maintaining hives on the roofs of high-rises or other buildings. For example, she’s not aware of any regulations requiring a temporary/guest warning that would require hotels to notify registrants that hives are on the roof.

“The idea of homeowners letting neighbors know is more common,” she said. “It’s just not something I think people have found is necessary given the potential danger — very low — posed by bees.”

beehive warning signFor beekeepers who want to take extra precautions in letting neighbors, solicitors, repairmen, postal workers or anyone allergic to bee stings know hives are on the property, professional warning signs are available (that's one of them at right).

Even with smart regulations, one question still persists for cities that allow beekeeping. Will there be enough food in the concrete jungles to support an increasing number of hives as beekeeping grows in popularity, especially in response to a worldwide decline in honeybees due to colony collapse disorder? It’s a question that’s being asked in some cities in Europe that allow beekeeping.

Leading bee researchers in the United Kingdom and members of the London Beekeeping Association, for example, are concerned that so many people are taking up beekeeping in London that the novices may be doing more harm than good. Their fear is that the density of colonies may overwhelm the available food supply, not only for the bees but for other species that also visit the flowers, and lead to conditions in which the contagious honeybee disease American foulbrood may break out and spread. While the disease is rare in Britain, it can occur, and infected hives must be burned.

Such as thing as too many bees in the city?

Tucker says the American Beekeeping Federation does not try to influence policy or make suggestions in regard to density of hives in U.S. cities because they believe the issue will be largely self-correcting.

"All beekeeping is 'local,'" Tucker said. “The optimum density of hives would depend upon whether the city is northern or southern and what kind of season there may be. San Diego would be completely different from Buffalo, N.Y., and it would be nearly impossible to set general limits on how many hives a city would support.”

If an area becomes saturated, he said, the pounds of honey produced per hive will go down. When that happens, Tucker believes that in a few years beekeepers will realize the area is capable of supporting only a percentage of the hives that have been installed. As a result, he pointed out, they will stop struggling with under-producing hives by reducing the number of hives until honey production per hive returns to acceptable levels.

“Economics will take care of the issue,” he concluded.

Tell us about beekeeping in your city. Is it allowed? If so, please share your success stories and photos in the comments section below. If it’s not allowed, share what efforts you are undertaking to change your zoning and municipal codes. And let us know the results!

Related stories on MNN:

Click for photo credits

Photo credits:

Pfefferkorn: Hyatt Regency Atlanta

Honeycomb: Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock

Warning sign: