an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Most of us know by now that Austin is a great place to live. I’ve been here my entire life and watched the city grow up with me. A lot has changed over the years and continues to change as new people arrive every day with hopes of making Austin their home. I used to feel a lot of angst about this because it felt like my little slice of paradise was being taken over and ruined. However in the past couple years I shifted my perspective to focus more on the positive growth that I am witnessing rather than complaining about traffic and skyrocketing housing prices. As with all things there are always numerous ways to look at it and both good and bad to be considered.
Five years ago I began my journey into the world of beekeeping. I had been gardening for many years prior and living as a vegetarian for over a decade. At some point in my veggie-loving path I learned about the importance of honeybees in food production as well as environmental biodiversity. I also learned about colony collapse disorder and the plight of the honeybee, which is what drove me to get into the craft. It is true that honeybees are struggling under the pressure of constant exposure to pesticides, the varroa mite, and loss of habitat. What most people do not consider or even know about is the decline of native bees. Before honeybees were introduced by way of European settlers, the native bees did 100% of the pollinating work! There are over 20,000 species of bees most of which are solitary. Due to the fact that most do not sting or produce honey they often take a back seat to the beloved honeybee. Cornell University Entomology Professor, Bryan Danforth, says the native bees are three times better pollinators than honeybees and not as prone to colony collapse disorder (Gashler, “Native Bees”).
What native bees are susceptible to, however, is habitat loss. Solitary bees will not travel very far from their nesting site to pollinate. A study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology found that on average solitary bees will fly less than a mile to forage (Gathmann and Tscharntke, “Foraging Ranges”). Honeybees have been known to travel up to seven miles in search of nectar and pollen. Consequently, the importance having an abundance of habitat and the biodiversity of that given space is paramount. Also, fragmentation of habitat is a major factor in the decline and extinction of many species of bees and other living creatures.
So this brings me back to Austin. Our explosion in population has led to what feels like the development of every inch of unused of land there is available. While I am happy that we are filling in spaces rather than sprawling out, it does lead me to wonder how this is affecting our local environment and the species that live within it. Much like the chicken renaissance, honeybees are gaining popularity, and more people are deciding to keep them in the urban environment. Beekeeping has seen a steady increase both locally and nationally over the past five years. Laura from Bee Weaver Apiary has seen her business move from predominantly commercial beekeepers to mostly small time local folks and notes an increase in young beekeepers in what has traditionally been a hobby of older men. That is great news for apis mellifera but what about their more humble sisters of the solitary variety? Can we support our native bees in the face of uninhibited urban development?
The answer is absolutely yes! Whenever I am selling my bee centric jewelry, Bee Amour, at a public show I have numerous people ask me what they can do to help the bees. When it comes to helping the honeybee my first order of business is to get people to buy organic food. Considering that honeybees are used to pollinate 35% of our crops if you buy organic food you are not only supporting the farmers who have chosen that challenging path but also the bees that will inevitably nuzzle into those plants for food. The advice that I give for supporting native bees also applies to honeybees and that is primarily to cultivate healthy environments for them. This means planting a variety of bee-friendly plants and flowers, avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides at all costs, and learning about sustainable methods of land development that do the least amount of damage to the species contained within. If you are living in a concrete building like many people who’ve moved to Austin in the past ten years you may not have access to land but that doesn’t mean you can’t help! Potted plants still feed bees (just be sure you don’t buy GMO plants from Home Depot). There are tons of local nurseries that can help you pick out the right plants for your space and the bees’ needs! Lastly you can buy or make little bee homes for solitary bees. Two Hives Honey is one of my favorite sources for locally made solitary bee homes in Austin and they even give you the eggs to go with the homes. If you’re the crafty, DIY type a quick google search will give you step-by-step instructions on how to make your own. One of the plus sides of keeping native bees is that they don’t sting you and they require almost no maintenance or care!
The importance of seeing the positive in all things cannot be understated! In my experience turning your attention to what is good only gives you more energy to move forward with beneficial growth. What began as a hobby for me with one little hive in my dad’s backyard in has turned into a growing urban apiary partnership with Milk + Honey Spa. Together we have fifteen hives and an apprenticeship program for the employees of the company. This collaboration would never have happened had a savvy entrepreneur, Alissa Bayer, not decided to move to Austin and grow a business here. It also wouldn’t have happened without my choice to participate in the growth that Austin is having. Ghandi said “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and my hopes are for Austin and its residents to continue to support creative people, businesses, and the environment through all of its changes so we can all do better together!
Anna Gieselman is a native Austinite and local maker: beekeeper, yoga instructor, and jewelry craftswoman. Her work can be found here: www.beeamour.com.
Gathmann, Achim and Teja Tscharntke. “Foraging Ranges of Solitary Bees.” Journal of Animal Ecology. September 2002.