Bespoke Living

God Save the Queen: How Urban Beekeeping Could Help the Honeybee

The world’s honeybees are in danger: Could urban beekeeping be the secret to helping them? We meet the experts to find out

Honeybees do really well in urban environments,” says Noah Wilson-Rich, CEO of The Best Bees Company. “That’s because there are flowers and trees everywhere. It may not look like it to you, but to a honeybee there are flowers in abundance in our cities.”

Wilson-Rich fell in love with the world’s favorite pollinators when he was studying biology at college. The Best Bees Company, which he co-founded, installs and manages hives in and around 13 U.S. cities including New York, Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco. He is also on a mission to save the increasingly endangered insect, leading research into why their numbers are declining and what conditions allow them to thrive.

“After humans, the most influential organism on this planet we share might be the honeybee,” he observes. “As pollinators, they’re responsible for about one in three bites of all the food we eat. You like crispy apples, crunchy almonds, or tart melons? You can thank the honeybee. And if you like cheese, milk, or beef, you can thank the honeybee for pollinating hay and other feed crops. Their health indicates the overall health of the environment, and they’re in trouble.”

Two beekeepers tending hives
From private gardens to rooftop terraces in the heart of Manhattan, The Best Bees Company has built flourishing hives throughout New York City and its surrounding area, and in locations across the U.S.

Wilson-Rich is one of a growing number of bee advocates encouraging us to welcome the honeybee into our gardens and outdoor spaces. He, the San Francisco Beekeepers Association (SFBA), and the Napa Valley Bee Company all agree that you don’t need a large amount of land to introduce a hive into your life.

Tap into the Power of the Community 

“Once you understand bee biology and flight paths, you can fit a bee colony into virtually any space without being a nuisance. Bees are very adaptable—they naturally try to set up home in some very strange places,” observes Rob Keller of the Napa Valley Bee Company. He suggests joining your local beekeeping club where you’ll meet committed keepers. “Find a bee mentor and learn all you can from them.”

After humans, the most influential organisms on this planet that we share might be the honeybee. As pollinators, they’re responsible for about one in three bites of all the food we eat—Noah Wilson-Rich

Wilson-Rich agrees that you need to go to beekeeping school before getting your first hive. “You really need to know what you are doing,” he explains. “You have to learn how to handle bees, not just for your own safety but for theirs, too.” The SFBA, for example, conducts classes to train would-be beekeepers in the art and science of managing honeybees.

Colorful bee hive set amidst greenery
Every colony is unique, and The Best Bees Company believes your beehive should be too. They help with design and offer clients a simple pick-and-choose menu to reflect personal taste and style.

It is, of course, possible to have your own hive without needing to manage it yourself, as Wilson-Rich and Keller demonstrate. “You can hire a beekeeping service to come and tend to your hive, much like a gardener will come and tend to your garden,” says Wilson-Rich.

Keller and his team, for example, currently manage around 100 bee colonies across Napa Valley, including hives located at leading wineries and restaurants such as The French Laundry and Chez Panisse. Whether you decide to manage your hive yourself or employ the services of a professional beekeeper, there are some basics to consider, such as where in your outside space you decide to put it.

Scientists have proved that bees can learn to recognize the face­, and probably the smell, of their beekeeper—Marc Johnson

“Honeybee hives should be located in areas where they do not create a nuisance for neighbors or the public. The hive entrance and flyway for bees leaving and entering the hive should be oriented or designed so that people, pets, and nearby property are not adversely affected by the flight pattern of the bees,” advises SFBA’s Marc Johnson. “The hive and entrance should be situated to receive sunlight as early as possible during the day, yet away from wind, rain, and damp conditions.” There should also be sufficient room for the beekeeper to open, inspect, and manage the hive.

The Best Bees Company agrees that honeybees do well in a sunny location, where it’s easy and safe for the insects to come and go, adding that they also like to be near a fresh water source. Both The Best Bees Company and the SFBA carry out assessments to make sure a hive is located where the bees are most likely to thrive.

Head Beekeeper Paula Carnell with a hive
Paula Carnell is head beekeeper of the Beezantium hive at The Newt hotel in Somerset, England. With her team, she keeps her own bees, and manages hives and colonies for individuals and businesses.

Hives should be tended to at least once a month, though sometimes a fortnightly visit is favored. “This is to make sure the bees are doing well and also to prevent swarming, so they don’t leave your house but stay there, in their nesting site,” says Wilson-Rich.

Gentle, Friendly, and Clever, Too 

“Scientists have proved that honeybees can learn to recognize the face, and probably the smell, of their beekeeper,” adds Johnson. “When the weather is nice—sunny, above 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18°C), and not windy—many veteran beekeepers will tend their hives without any covering since, most often, the bees will be gentle and friendly.”

And of course, each visit is an opportunity to harvest honey—an additional bonus of keeping bees. “We have one client who regularly hosts garden parties where they serve cocktails that feature their honey as well as honey-themed charcuterie plates,” says Wilson-Rich. “Some clients ask their beekeeper to come and do a demonstration of their beehives for their guests.”

The Beezantium is a lakeside apiary located in the grounds of The Newt hotel in Somerset, England.
The Beezantium is a lakeside apiary located in the grounds of The Newt hotel in Somerset, England. With several hives built into the walls, it's a home for the honeybee and an education center for hotel guests and visitors.

The most common type of hive available is the Langstroth beehive, with the lift-out trays most of us have seen in movies. “It was designed in the 1850s and hasn’t changed very much since then, which is amazing,” notes Wilson-Rich. “We use the Langstroth design so that our research is standardized.”

That doesn’t mean all beehives have to look identical, however. The Best Bees Company offers customized designs, from clean, bright white hives to models with pops of color­—the team recently matched a hive to a client’s blue house with copper accents.

Creative Hive Designs 

Architects and designers have also been playing with the look of beehives. Oslo- and New York-based Snøhetta, for example, has created monolithic hexagonal hives atop a food market in the Norwegian capital. And in the UK, the Newt hotel in Somerset recently unveiled the Beezantium, a wooden structure designed by Invisible Studio architects. It’s surrounded by a specially planted apiary where guests get to see the world from a bee’s-eye view and watch two of the estate’s bee colonies at work.

But if you just want to help bees without going the whole hog and setting up a hive, Keller has good news: “You don’t need your own colony of honeybees to help save the species. Planting bee-friendly plants in your garden for bees to forage on is a great start. Here in Napa, it’s all about salvias, rosemary, and lavender… drought-tolerant, Mediterranean plants. In turn, the bees will help your garden become more biodiverse because they’re such good pollinators.”

On the Market 

Large estate with swimming pool shown from the air
The gardens of this home have been lovingly created—there are formal beds, a rose garden, a herb garden, and an orchard, which all provide color. Wisteria adorns the south-east façade, and there are rhododendrons and hydrangeas in the private parkland.

Boasting one of the most impressive gardens on the island, this magnificent home on the island of Jersey is nestled on 7.5 acres (3 ha) incorporating formal spaces, parkland walks, and a vast greenhouse—all ideal for attracting pollinators. Indoors, grand entertaining areas take in superb views of the grounds, combining opulence with comfort.

An exotic garden in Geneva, Switzerland
Bathed in sunlight throughout the day, this home features a pool with a barbecue area, which is a great spot for entertaining. The generous living room, including a cosy fireplace, opens on to the dining room and veranda, connecting the indoor and outdoor spaces.

An extraordinary array of native flora, fruit trees, exotic plants, ponds, and fountains offers a perfect home for wildlife amid the grounds of this beautiful five-bedroom property. Vistas of Mont-Blanc dazzle from the owners’ suite, and winter gardens maximize indoor–outdoor living all year round, making this a spectacular retreat.

Banner image: A Best Bees Company beekeeper checking on a hive