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Urban beekeeping creating a buzz around Taipei

2017/11/07 20:33:06

By Lee Hsin-yin, CNA staff reporter

Whenever Jimmy Yen (燕君迪) opens the door of his dimly lit fourth-floor apartment in Taipei, he is greeted with a buzz that only grows louder as he steps out onto his balcony. Sometimes he emerges wearing a white jacket, gloves, a broad-brimmed hat and a veil.

Yen, however, is not an eccentric celebrity but rather a hobbyist in the growing niche of urban beekeeping.

"The relationship between bees and human beings is amazing," he says, as he looks at the three buzzing hives on his balcony, in which he keeps some 150,000 bees.

While urban beekeeping has been gaining popularity in cities such as Tokyo, Seoul, Vancouver and Chicago over the past five years, Taipei has been slower to adopt the idea.

The concept came to the fore in Taiwan in 2014 when the media took up the story of W Taipei, a 32-story hotel in the capital's bustling Xinyi District, which had a hive of 100,000 bees on its roof.

The W Taipei apiary was an initiative sponsored by Syin-Lu Social Welfare Foundation with the goal of improving the urban ecology in Taiwan.

At present, most of Taiwan's apiaries are located in agricultural areas in the central and southern farming areas of the country, which allows greater space but poses a particular problem, according to Chen Yue-wen (陳裕文), a bee expert and professor at National Ilan University's Department of Biotechnology and Animal Science.

Farmers in Taiwan typically use pesticides in their fields, which exposes the bees to a toxic environment, Chen said.

It is therefore practical to keep honey bees in Taipei, a city with a population of around 2.7 million and little space for crop farming, he said.

Around the world, there is growing awareness of the threat to bee populations due to disease and excessive use of pesticides, which inevitably will affect humans since 35 percent of their food sources are linked to bee pollination, said Tsai Ming-hsien (蔡明憲), who teaches an urban beekeeping course at Songshan Community College in Taipei.

While urban beekeeping is not a direct solution to the developing crisis, it does help build greater awareness of the environment and spurs people to think about how to deal with some of the problems, he said.

His views on the subject have resonated with Yen, who set about building an urban apiary in 2016 shortly after taking Tsai's three-month beekeeping course.

Starting with a budget of roughly NT$10,000 (US$331), Yen built two hives, bought a honey extractor, and acquired a queen bee and 50,000 worker bees.

Family, neighbors biggest obstacle at first

"The biggest obstacle at the time was strong resistance from my wife and neighbors," he said, pointing out that the doors and windows on his home remained tightly closed because his wife drew the line at letting bees into the apartment itself.

Once Yen got started, he established a weekly routine of checking the honeycombs to see if the queen bee was in good condition, checking whether there were changes in the size of the colony, assessing the number of eggs, larvae, pupas, and observing how the pollen and honey were distributed.

"It's not easy work," said Yen, a retired IT worker who lives in Taipei's Shongshan District with his wife and their cat. "Each of those checks takes at least three hours."

The upside, he said, is that he now pays greater attention to the environment in his neighborhood and exchanges ideas with other apiarists on subjects such as where to buy equipment, how best to tend the bees, and methods of handling raw honey. They also have been putting forward ideas to city officials on bottom-up ways of improving the environment, he said.

Yen's hives now yield 50 kilograms of honey per year, most of which he gives to friends and relatives.

"My wife is the happiest person in the world when she's helping me pack the honey," he said. "But I would always leave some for the bees because they deserve it."

For Yen and other enthusiasts, urban beekeeping remains a hobby with a sweet benefit, but not all of them are concerned about obtaining honey. For one man in particular, the main goal is to help sustain the ecosystem and allow people to expand their knowledge of such issues.

To that end, Wang Ting-shuo (王庭碩) co-founded a social enterprise called Come Back to Me, which designs and distributes a particular type of beehive.

The "bee hotel," as it has been dubbed, caters exclusively to a species known as solitary bees, which is the most prevalent species in Taiwan, said Wang, a doctoral student at National Taiwan University's Department of Entomology.

Solitary bees do not live in colonies, produce honey or have a queen, but they are extremely efficient pollinators, he said.

Wang's solitary bee hotel is wooden structure with holes for each female bee. The female burrows into the hole, lays her eggs then flies out and seals the hole with mud before taking off.

(A solitary bee hotel at Zhinan Elementary School. Video courtesy of Come Back to Me)

After about a month, the larvae develop and the young bees bore their way out the mud-sealed hole.

Keeping solitary bees is a practical way for new enthusiasts to learn about bees and it does not affect the environment as heavily as introducing massive numbers of honeybees, Wang said.

"Urban beekeeping calls for the right environment and good management skills, therefore, it will take a while before most of us could get there," he said.

'Food corridor' for solitary bees

For solitary bees, a "food corridor" must be created by growing nectariferous plants such as lavender, basil and Christ thorn, Wang said.

Where there is a stable nectar supply in the urban environment, there will be solitary bees, which will provide an opportunity for people to observe bees in general, he said.

In an effort to maximize such opportunities, Wang and his team have set up more than 700 solitary bee hotels across Taiwan at locations that include elementary schools, city parks, and the Q Square Mall in Taipei.

"We are creating a map of bee hotspots for educational purposes and also to monitor bee activity and their environment," Wang said.

(A bee hotspots map. Yellow spots: bee crossings, Orange spots: bee hives, Green spots: bees' food sources. Map courtesy of Come Back to Me)

In Taipei, the city government has also been encouraging urban beekeeping as part of its "garden city" project, which was initiated by Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲).

The project included the three-month beekeeping course at Songshan Community College taught by Tsai, who advocates the introduction of more bees into the urban environment as a way of redirecting people's attention to the food chain, food safety and the delicate balance of the ecosystem.

"At the end of the day, urban beekeeping will help restore the balance among humans, other creatures and the environment," he said. 1061107