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Amateur Beekeeping in Berlin: How ecological is it?

Companies like BienenBox promote ecological amateur beekeeping in Berlin - but how green is it?

Photo: Yonathan Frantz

On a sun-drenched Treptower balcony Johannes Weber’s bee colony has been buzzing away since 2013. The tranquil sounds of nature’s busy work are rudely interrupted each time the Ringbahn screeches past just metres from the window. In 2013, the Hausverwaltung shut down the urban garden Weber was keeping downstairs with his neighbours and he had to relocate his trusty pollinators. “I thought: ‘shit, okay, the only place that is left is the balcony’.” He set out to build his own balcony-friendly hive: the prototype for his branded BienenBox. After a successful crowdfunding campaign for his social enterprise Stadtbienen, Weber found himself at the vanguard of Berlin’s new, hip and eco-friendly urban beekeeping scene: “I had seen that it was possible to keep bees in cities like New York and I thought: “cool, let’s try it.”

According to the Deutscher Imkerbund, Berlin’s amateur beekeeping scene continues to thrive, with 15-25 percent more keepers registering themselves with the organisation year by year. Many Berliners see urban beekeeping as a way to dip their toes into the circle of sustainability, adding an ecological honey bee box to their balcony and hoping that the insects will pollinate their homegrown strawberries or cherry tomatoes. But almost 10 years on, have the habits of well-meaning hobby beekeepers led Berlin’s bee population into an even stickier situation?

It was Weber’s grandfather who introduced him to beekeeping back in southern Germany: “As a child, it was normal for me to be somewhere with bees flying around my head,” he reminisces. While his grandfather practised conventional beekeeping, today Weber swears by ecological beekeeping, a method which puts bees first rather than maximising honey production.

Honey includes micronutrients that bees need to stay healthy. So the main principle of Weber’s ecological method is leaving bees their own honey to eat over winter, rather than replacing it with sugar water and harvesting the honey, as most conventional beekeepers do. This is uncommon in Germany, with even the most respected sustainable brands like Demeter taking up to 90 percent of the honey their bees produce. Weber’s branded ecological BienenBox also supports natural comb production: “we don’t use artificial wax plates, [unlike honey-intensive beekeepers who use artificial wax], because if the bees don’t have to produce wax then they have more time to produce honey.”

Sven Gerlant, ecological beekeeper. Photo: Yonathan Frantz

Ecological beekeeping also eschews barriers to separate the queen from worker bees, a method used by traditional keepers to access the honey storage part of the hive. Weber is proud of Stadtbienen’s sustainable methods of beekeeping and the social enterprise now sells around 400 of his branded bee boxes to eager new keepers every year.

Territory rules

Not everyone is convinced by the sustainability selling point of companies like Stadtbienen though. “People tell me that there is a difference between ecological beekeeping and [conventional] beekeeping,” says Melanie von Orlow, “but in my opinion, there is no ecological beekeeping.” Von Orlow, a representative of the Berlin Imkerverband (Beekeeping Association) and insect specialist at NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union), claims to be one of Berlin’s biggest hobby beekeepers, with about 20 hives in her own garden and a local cemetery.

“The one major difference is that [if you don’t want the bees to produce wax] you have to buy ecologically produced foundations,” von Orlow says, referring to the comb-like plates made from wax. She continues: “but many of these things are normal procedures for beekeepers. Most of us in Berlin are lazy; we just take the honey we need, or want to sell, and many beehives survive on their own honey.”

“There’s something natural about being human and taking care of something,” says von Orlow, who spent her Berlin childhood looking after whatever bumble bees and wasps she could find in the garden. She’s glad that more people are sharing in her passion for hymenoptera – the insect family to which bees belong. “Bees are one of the few insects you can hold and interact with. Honey bees are ambassadors of such relationships and provide wonderful products, including candles and honey.”

But she also insists this hobby craze comes with pitfalls. “It’s not something you can learn from a YouTube video,” – a common entry-point which von Orlow considers detrimental to the Hauptstadt’s bee population. “I know many beekeepers who should look at their hives more closely: their bees are dying over winter because of the varroa mite.”

The parasitic varroa mite is the beekeeper’s worst enemy, and as the density of Berlin’s bee population continues to grow, diseases also spread more easily. “In nature, you have a distance of about one kilometre between naturally established bee colonies. Here in Berlin, it’s overcrowded. This struggle for space is when diseases are spread,” says Sven Gerlant, a 62-year-old landscape gardener.

According to the Berliner Imkerverband, the city has an estimated 20 hives per 1.6 square kilometres. In his Schrebergarten (allotment) in Baumschulenweg, the bees of Gerlant’s six hives fill the air with a faint smell of honey. Based in a garden-less Bergmannkiez flat, he started renting the plot in 2008 as a place to bee-keep, and with the help of a beekeeper mentor, Gerlant caught the first swarms he needed to start his own colonies. The south German also volunteers as one of Berlin’s Schwarmfänger, on call to lend a hand when locals spot a stray swarm taking up new digs in their roof or stairway.

Warming to swarming

Attitudes to swarming – the reproductive process by which the queen leaves her colony and takes half its worker bees with her to create a new, independent colony – is a contentious topic that divides conventional and ecological urban beekeepers. “Conventional beekeepers don’t want their bees to swarm because forfeiting half the bees means forfeiting half the honey. But swarming has a positive effect on the health of a bee colony,” says Weber.

Photo: Yonathan Frantz

As an ecological beekeeper, he also condemns wing clipping, as practised by conventional or “honey-intensive beekeepers” to stop queens leaving the hive. To conventional beekeeper von Orlow, this is just another example of ecological beekeeping hearsay. “Ongoing rumours and documentaries like More Than Honey highlight a kind of [industrial] beekeeping which might be practised in the US and honey bee companies with 4000 hives, but here in Berlin the style of beekeeping is much less intensive and invasive.”

According to von Orlow, the recent recurring problem of Berlin’s stray swarms has led to dwindling sympathies for the city’s beekeepers. “People complain about bees at pools and on water-playgrounds, about bee stings while mowing the lawn, or swarms resting in the garden. Beekeepers must help prevent such issues.” Weber agrees bee colonies shouldn’t be allowed to swarm around Berlin.

The beehive is a blackbox, we don’t really understand what happens in there.

“Anticipate your colony’s swarm. Before they move out, take half of the bees with the old queen and create a swarm,” says Weber. “Then the swarm can’t just leave without you being able to catch it. Instead, you can give it to someone else to start a new colony. It’s a more respectful approach to the natural reproductive process.”

Volunteering as a Schwarmfänger since 2017, Gerlant hasn’t noticed a significant rise in the number of swarms in the city and on the question of trendy, ecological beekeeping practices vs. the conventional old-school methods, he thinks the methods reveal more about keepers than their bees: “The beehive is a blackbox, we don’t really understand what happens in there,” he says, “it’s too easy to project your own philosophy onto bees.”

Honey pots and money spots

While Weber imagines a utopia where ecological beekeeping is enshrined in law and von Orlow insists that bees are ready and willing to supply an endless flow of honey, 24-year-old student Nadja Spatzl is looking at the bigger picture. “My grandfather was a beekeeper and if someone had said: ‘leave the bees most of the honey for themselves,’ he’d have laughed. You keep the bees for the honey so why wouldn’t you take it?” Spatzl’s grandfather died a few years ago. After rediscovering his old hives, she took up beekeeping as a lockdown hobby and attended a year of courses run by Weber’s Stadtbienen.

For a year Spatzl has been helping to keep a hive at the Allmende Kontor community garden on Tempelhofer Feld. The experience has changed her attitude towards honey: “there are varying degrees of exploitation,” Spatzl says. She’s sympathetic to the beekeepers who rely on it for their livelihood: “It’s important to think about how people can make a living from beekeeping without having to do honey-intensive beekeeping. I won’t earn money from beekeeping and that’s okay because it’s my hobby, but you can’t tell everyone to change. For me it’s also not about […] honey becoming a luxury, but seeing it as something that’s not taken for granted and is respected, because it’s animals who make it. We don’t need as much honey as we have in the supermarket.”

Into the wild

Honey bees reign supreme when it comes to capturing the interest and imagination of humans. “They tell stories about a complex, intelligent and fascinating organism,” says Weber. His courses give him a unique perspective on how people get hooked. “Course participants are fascinated by bee colonies. At the same time, they know it’s good for the world outside.” Add some guilt-free honey and you’ve got a winner .

For von Orlow, the economic potential of bees and their products explains why honey bees take centre stage in scientific insect studies: “The science of bees is based on honey bees because they are economically important animals.” Cast out of the limelight are Berlin’s bumble, solitary and wild bees. Weber and von Orlow agree there is no proof wild and honey bees compete for food, but the city’s disappearing green spaces mean that nectar sources could be few and far between in the future. If Berliners want to help endangered bee species, they might have to forego the honey reward.

“I don’t think the balcony bee boxes play a big role in Berlin’s complex ecosystem,” Gerlant admits. “It would be better if more people had homemade nesting aids for wild bees than honey bee boxes. It’s easier, and better for the environment and ecological diversity.”

“The Stadtbienen course taught us that wild bees are the insect we need to worry about right now,” says Spatzl.” We rely on insects for pollination. At our community garden, we want to offer kindergarten and public workshops where people can learn about bees – and how much we depend on them.”