HomeProgressUrban beekeeping, an engine of social innovation

Urban beekeeping, an engine of social innovation

Urban beekeeping in Italy, an engine of social innovation. There is no innovation in an agricultural practice even if it is a citizen. We witness exciting tales of young beekeepers in all the cities of the world where the distinctive trait emerges, that of raising bees on the roofs of houses and doing biomonitoring. But is urban beekeeping really this? We are the first to remove the veil from a new national project, we discover Italian urban beekeeping.

Urban beekeeping in Italy, history and virtue

Beekeeping in Italy - as already mentioned - is a crucial sector of national animal husbandry. Not only for the economic value of its productions, but above all for the function of the bee and the other thousands of similar species. At the service of agricultural production and biodiversity, i.e. the protection of rural and forest areas not subject to intensive cultivation plagued by poisonous pesticides

To Don Giacomo Angeleri it must the most significant experience for the development of modern beekeeping, in the early 900s. In fact, Don Angeleri experimented with an innovative form of conducting bees in hives and had the ability to divulge and disseminate this practice, very similar to that still in use today. His bees were on the banks of the Po, in Turin, where his experimental apiary was still present until recently. And it is always to him that we owe the idea of ​​a pioneering kiosk of street food, the House of Good Honey, opened in 1920 in front of the Royal Palace. To sensitize citizens to the virtues of bee nectar and promote food education.

Modern urban beekeeping it is based on the experiences of the early 80s, when the universities of Turin and Bologna introduced the idea of ​​using bees as 'environmental matrices', as sentinels for measuring the health of the environment. At a more recent age, the project 'Bees and Urban Gardens' made it possible to carry out environmental analyzes in some Italian cities (Milan, Bologna, Potenza, Turin) whose first results (2017-2018) were presented on 30.1.19/XNUMX/XNUMX to the FICO foundation. Thanks to bees and their lovers, in just one year the city of Milan has seen a drastic reduction in pesticide levels. It was enough to ask and obtain from the municipal administration the suspension of the treatments of the green areas, during the flowering periods of the honey plants, with glyphosate and other pesticides. To recover, already in 12 months, at least some health for the ecosystem and its inhabitants. 

Beekeeping in the city and pastures for bees vs. urban beekeeping

Breeding bees it requires special training and a lot of practice, to be able to face the many dangers that animals may encounter (eg predators, pathologies). To that responsibilities are added and the legal fees, which are prescribed for running a hive such as a chicken coop and other animal husbandry activities. Health records, traceability, good hygiene practices and self-control, mandatory treatments against the mite Varroa Destroyer, compliance of the production laboratory with sanitary requirements. 

Lead the bees to the city, producing metropolitan honey, keeping the hives on the roofs non however, it is urban beekeeping. It is simply animal husbandry, a practice of handling wild animals carried out in the city but still and only beekeeping, therefore beekeeping in the city. There is no innovation or restitution of value in the host city, nor is there an objective path to safeguard biodiversity. Indeed, if conducted without adequate preparation, it can also be harmful to residents. (1)

The beekeeping projects in the city - even if aimed at profit, for activitiesno profit'or educational - they still concern breeding activities. Neither more nor less than what can be achieved with donkeys or horses. And the examples of 'beekeeping'are numerous, from San Francisco to Toronto, Copenhagen, Dublin, London, Sydney, Tokyo, Paris, Detroit, Kampala, Seoul, New York, Amsterdam, Montague, Belfast, Jakarta, Berlin. The cities also offer extraordinary pastures, both in variety and quantity. (2) As proof of this, a nice anecdote. At the Sixth National Convention of Urban Beekeeping, at the Free University of Bolzano, one of the greatest experts in sensory analysis of honey - subjected to 'blind tests'(tasting' blind ') - appreciated the profusion of characteristic aromas of mountain honeys. In a honey that instead came from a London neighborhood. The 'Greater London'in fact, it counted more than 3500 hives in 2013. (3) Perhaps too many, according to the entomologist Francis Ratnieks, who issued a warning that urban beekeepers in Italy also picked up in 2017.

'You can be an urban beekeeper even without raising bees. But by helping to produce pastures for pollinators'. Apoidea are thousands, from osmias to bumblebees. And each in his own small way, even in schools, can create with simplicity 'pastures for bees'(from honey and not). Growing flowers and melliferous plants, such as aromatic herbs (eg sage, thyme, mint, lavender, rosemary) and spices, sunflower and clover. Rather than exotic or alien species (e.g. acacia). Certainly a simpler activity than running a beehive, and yet just as valuable.

The scientific community and the national beekeeping associations, moreover, have reiterated that bees are not tameable animals. Instead, they follow - and fortunately - rigorous habits and behaviors that have evolved over millions of years. They are animals that have developed a practically perfect social system and their presence in the city, from the point of view of the human-bee relationship, does not involve any possibility of influencing their behavior.

Bees live independently, they look for food and reproduce autonomously. Although it has been shown that they can adapt to urban areas even better than to the surrounding rural areas. For these reasons, our relationship with melliferous insects does not produce changes, except for the (sometimes negative) consequences of their exploitation for production purposes, as can happen in agriculture. Even if we tried to talk to them for hours, harness them in different wraps, protect them and even provide them with food, the bees would not change their behavior and their relationship with the environment. They are and remain wild animals. 

Urban beekeeping and social innovation

What then is urban beekeeping and how does it differ from traditional livestock activities, inside and outside the city? The innovation is not material, the hives are the same and there is nothing new, apparently. Biomonitoring itself is neither new nor distinctive. The real novelty of urban beekeeping, on the other hand, is represented by the social value of sharing - thanks to the networks of aware and expert individuals - that aspires to favor the improvement of the quality of life of all. The aggregate projects of single groups of individuals are aimed at the benefit of the community. By stimulating relations between citizens and the environment, solidarity. And this is how beekeeping translates into a tool for introducing favorable changes.

'Urban beekeeping it is not just a sector of animal husbandry, but a cultural movement. A constellation of themes and interests, bees to help restore roots to those who have had to emigrate, a creative outlet for those limited by a disability, a positive idea of ​​freedom for those who are temporarily incarcerated, the pretext for proposing active participation and passionate of citizens to safeguard biodiversity, from maintaining urban hives to cultivating grazing sources for bees and other Apoidea.

Sufficiently detached from the need to make an income, it can create an advanced form of respect for animal welfare. Linked to the city, which is the center of communication, it can lead to forms of art, involve schools and children to discover rhythms and expressions of natural life in the city, promote local food production, serve to measure the quality of the environment through the bees.'

'Urban beekeeping as an engine of social innovation', the thesis produced at the Polytechnic of Turin' Architecture and Industrial Design 'by Cecilia Roella, uses the metaphor of the constellation for better express biodiversity - and the need to live in increasingly functional and integrated cities - that this approach promotes. And this is the key to the interpretation, which goes beyond animal husbandry and the production of honey, which in turn are archetypes of farming independent of the concept of urbanity.

The priorities of urban beekeeping are therefore different from the simple production of honey. Because you are oriented towards the love of nature and beauty, respect towards pollinators and their well-being. Recalling that they themselves can feel emotions, (4) experience moments of high stress (Donald Broom, University of Cambridge) and suffer, generating opioids among other things. (5)

Urban beekeeping, the world network for biodiversity 

A worldwide network for the promotion and protection of biodiversity will be inaugurated on May 20, 2019 throughout the planet. We met (Cortese) some of its Terra Madre participants every two years, together with the delegates of urban beekeepers from all over the world. We can see them again in the episode of Linea Verde, RAI, 26.11.16. There is no shortage of testimonies in Italy:

- and Torino, with the 'Community of Food of Urban Beekeepers', the Parco del Nobile, the 'Bees in the City', the University of Turin and the young beekeepers of the local network. Who are dedicated to integrated projects with 'Metropolitan Gardens', to pollinate 17 thousand square meters of urban gardens. As well as biomonitoring and environmental education programs, in primary and secondary schools,

- to Alexandria, the APS Cambalache Association introduced the revolutionary idea 'Bee My Job'. To put professional beekeepers in relation with immigrants former victims of illegal hiring, who thus learn a splendid profession and become young entrepreneurs,

- and Milano, which has given impetus to urban beekeeping by providing courses and workshops with schools and stands out for one web platform aimed at helping newbies to beekeeping,

- and Cremona, where the group 'Cremona Urban Bees'provides citizens with an apiary and offers beekeeping courses. Strongly desired by the citizens, it is a project of common good born from the citizens themselves and from the need to create moments of aggregation and awareness of the environment,

- and Bologna, near the CAAB, biomonitoring projects are being carried out and soon, with FICO and the University of Bologna, an educational apiary. On 13.4.19 Green line showed the project of 'Beeing',

- and Cesena, a project that involves the city itself is about to join the European project 'Bee PathNet'with other European cities including Barcelona and Ljubljana, the historic capital of human-bee integration,

- and Latina 'Bees in town', which has been in operation for 5 years. While a Roma just in these days the first association was formed, 'Roman bees'. To preside over disadvantaged areas with system projects, together with associations of parents, schools, producers,

- and Power the young people of Legambiente, after having recovered and reclaimed a contaminated land, transformed it into a social garden and then an apiary. To manage it is a former prisoner who began his path of 'freedom' with pollinators,

- it's still Segrate, Bolzano, Reggio Emilia, Florence (next venue for the national conference), Bari, Naples e Palermo carry out virtuous projects. 

Urban beekeeping, the Italian model

The Italian model of urban beekeeping, through these witnesses and the path they are following, proposes an innovative vision of the relationship with nature. If the bee and man were equal, our experience with bees would be richer and more respectful of these animals to which so much is due. Contemplating and enjoying their company without asking or expecting anything else, immersed in a pleasant landscape of living nature. The idea of ​​living together, triggering a mutual reward is called interspecific conviviality.

Paolo Faccioli, in his penultimate book 'On the other side of the smoker', requires an awareness. The production of 70% of our food depends on the activity and well-being of pollinating insects (source FAOstat). But the survival of these species, and so of ours, is linked to a series of factors that require a drastic choice, as citizens and consumers. The system must change, to mitigate the climate change and reclaim the environment. It is necessary implement agroecology, eliminate or in any case drastically reduce both the use of pesticides and the areas cultivated with monocultures.

The national network - which on 20.5.19 will show its new face - wants to defend a model of beekeeping that can be at the service of cities and citizens. To emphasize that bees are not just honey or roofers'radical chic'but a complex natural system. And each of us should learn to understand it, freeing ourselves from the paradigm of raising bees in the city. The city should rather be understood as a place of resilience and innovation. Urban beekeeping is much more. And from today it is open to everyone, if each of us wants to help defend it or offer pastures of flowers and honey plants.

Guido Cortese and Dario Dongo


(1) Just think of countless swarms of bees that cling to man-made infrastructures (e.g. gutters, window sills, dehors, seats). Where a good beekeeper must try to reduce swarming, even if it is a natural phenomenon. Think also of a single family with foragers that come out of the hive in June, about tens of thousands of bees that release excrement on sheets or parking lots. Technique and preparation are essential to prevent and mitigate these phenomena

(2) See Francesca Cirio, 'GIS and bioindicators: analysis methodology based on melissopalinological data in the urban planning activity in Turin'(degree thesis in Geographic Information Systems of the Turin-Milan Interfaculty)

(3) Francis Ratnieks (2013). 'To Bee or Not To Bee’, TheBiologist Vol 60 (4) p12-15, http://www.lbka.org.uk/downloads/urban_beekeeping_the_biologist.pdf

(4) 'Honeybees exhibit a vertebrate-like emotional state'. See Melissa Bateson, Suzanne Desire, Sarah E. Gartside, Geraldine A. Wright. 'Agitated Honeybees Exhibit Pessimistic Cognitive Biases'. Curr Biol. 2011 Jun 21; 21 (12): 1070-1073. doi: 10.1016 / j.cub.2011.05.017

(5) 'In the honeybee an endogenous opioid system activated by isoppentyl acetate is responsible for modulation of perception for nocipetptive stimuli'. See Josuè Nunez, Lourdes Almeida, Norberto Balderrama, Martin Giurfa (1998). 'Alarm Pheromone induces stress Analgesia via an Opioid System in the Honeybee'. Physiol Behav 63 (1) 75–80, 1998. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0031-9384(97)00391-0

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Computer scientist and professional beekeeper. A former conscientious objector, he served and then volunteered in a canteen for the homeless in Turin. He deals with the right to food, food policy, food sovereignty and biodiversity. He founded the association of Metropolitan Pollinators with the aim of defending biodiversity through specific projects of social and environmental regeneration. He represents the Slow Food Community of Metropolitan Pollinators. He promoted the birth of the national network of urban beekeepers. He directs an independent agricultural market, collaborates and writes for Egalitè (Onlus Rome) which deals with defending the rights of disadvantaged people, and with the newspapers Great ItalianFood Trade, Qualiformaggio, L'apicoltore Italiano and minor magazines.

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.


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