A Hive of Opportunity

Urban bee farming is buzzing in Arizona

Nearly 10 years ago, a colony collapse disorder swept across the country, mysteriously wiping out many beehives. But bees—and their beekeepers—are back, especially in Arizona where urban hobbyists and commercial operators are busy tending their honeybee farms, according to Dave Petersen, president of the nonprofit Beekeepers Association of Central Arizona.

“In the last few years, membership in the organization has increased five times,” says Peterson of the 100-plus members who include men, women and children of all ages involved in some aspect of beekeeping activities.

Why all the buzz? The trend in Arizona is indicative of a national beekeeping culture that has encouraged hives to crop up not just in rural areas, but also on downtown rooftops, in suburban backyards, and other locations in cities and populated environments.

Relatively low start-up costs, the significant link of bees to the food chain, and their role in pollinating plants, crops and vegetables—as well as the associated health benefits of honey—are major reasons bee farming is becoming more prolific in urban centers.

Arizona, in particular, is bee-friendly because of the temperate climate in many areas, which means beekeeping can be a nearly year-round endeavor.

“One of the major upsides is the weather,” explains Petersen. “We have a long blooming season—just about every month. We don’t have to deal with snow or tornadoes, or large critters like bears.”

Another advantage to beekeeping in Arizona is its infrastructure, according to Zack Funke, an urban bee farmer from Tempe.

“We have a large population with low density. A lot of space lends itself to hobbies and farming methods like beekeeping. Properties are more spread out here, so you have less issues with safety and residents are less likely to be stung or disturbed by bees.”

Petersen, a building contractor by day, got into bee farming eight years ago and says that about 90 percent of members of the Beekeepers Association of Central Arizona are enthusiasts.

“Instead of having an ant farm or a dog, hobbyists have bees, which are their pets,” he says.

Others are commercial farmers like Petersen, who has 300 active hives in the state and wholesales his honey production to farmers markets. Funke became a part-time urban bee farmer in 2007 as a natural extension of his interest in different food lifestyles and modalities. In 2011, he started beekeeping full time and now harvests honey from multiple hives in different locations throughout Phoenix, including Maya’s Farm at South Mountain.

Funke, who sells his honey and beeswax online and at farmers markets through his business, The Health Foodie, is more interested in exploring the culinary diversity of honey than making a huge profit.

“I’m not in this to make millions of dollars,” he says of the possibilities inherent in honey production. “Honey has the same versatility as wheat.”

Unlike other agricultural efforts, it’s fairly easy to launch a bee farming business. Funke says a basic beekeeping toolkit should include proper safety equipment like a veil and gloves, smoker, hive tool for harvesting, hive frame and, of course, bees.

While anyone can start a honeybee farm, there are some things to consider such as whether your goal is to manufacture honey, colonize or be observational. He also says would-be urban bee farmers need to understand whether their city beekeeping operation will be a nuisance to neighbors and the state laws that govern bee enterprises.

For that reason, Petersen recommends beginning apiarists and backyard hobbyists seek advice from experts like those at the Beekeepers Association of Central Arizona to avoid getting stung by lack of knowledge about bee behavior and management.

“If you don’t know what you are doing, bees will hurt,” Petersen says with a chuckle. But he welcomes everyone to get in on the bee bandwagon because he believes the benefits of beekeeping are worth all the buzz. “Bees are cool.”

Story by Sally J. Clasen
Photography by Mark Lipczynski

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