The Urban Colony

A gallon of honey weighs about twelve pounds. In a single worker bee’s life, she will produce about one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. Before venturing out of the hive, she will be promoted through a series of jobs. After cleaning cells, nursing the young, and producing wax, she will finally depart. The bees we often see flying alone, buzzing through flowers and trees, could easily be in the last days or hours of their lives. 

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Pets are ubiquitous in American life, both rural and domestic. Pets, in general, are a luxury. They spring from a deeply human need to care for and be cared for, thus becoming human-created objects of affection. Owners give their pets anthropomorphizing names, attempting to incorporate them into the family to further legitimize their existence and belonging in the home. 

 Beyond the hearth, many livestock bear names as well, symbols of an inevitably growing sense of attachment to the cow or chicken. But the names also serve a pragmatic purpose of differentiating Bessie from Bertha. Livestock provide milk in the morning and eggs for lunch. They are the source of wool that can be spun into skeins of yarn. For special occasions, the livestock serve their purpose, owners will kill them, and then barbeque and eat them. Livestock in rural settings play a utilitarian role in everyday life. 

 On many agricultural farms one will find beehives. Bees play a vital role as pollinator, ensuring that crops will bear fruit. Bees are a source of honey and wax, which can be sold as candles, soap, and lip balm. The herd, or colony of six-legged livestock, lives as a unit, wrangled and controlled by its keeper. 

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In second grade, one of my first homework assignments was to conduct a survey asking my family which animal they liked most. My dad and I liked cats. My brother liked frogs. My mom, in turn, told me she liked humans best. Her comment struck me: We, of course, are animals too. In spite of my mom’s aversion to the idea of pets at home, she eventually agreed to adopt a cat. At the animal shelter, she was drawn to the most docile kitten and together we decided he would be easy to take care of and train. We soon found out that his lethargy was a manifestation of a feline autoimmune disease, and we had to put him down. Though my mom cried every time she read Charlotte’s Web to me, as we bid our kitten farewell, we were all embarrassingly relieved. 

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There has been a recent movement to bring bees into the urban sphere. In tandem with urban agriculture, urban beekeeping attempts to insert the countryside into the city. With hives on the roofs of the London Stock Exchange and of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, bees recently have found themselves in high places. New York and San Francisco have been leaders in this new movement, as part of a broader effort by its inhabitants to return to their rural roots. These are two of America’s most densely populated cities, but also two of its most green-conscious; Central Park and Golden Gate Park counteract the cities’ otherwise concrete sprawl. In fact, the two cities’ sheer urbanity might be the driving force behind their search for the pastoral, their yearning for a breath of fresh air. Urban professionals hang up their jackets and heels and don beekeeping suits. With this new uniform, they step out into cramped backyards or balcony rooftops to systematically comb through each frame of the hive. In that fleeting moment, the city’s ambulance sirens and car horns are mute: All they hear is a rural buzz. 

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Urban beekeeping has reconceptualized bees as pets rather than as livestock. The practice reshapes the utilitarian as hobby and luxury. City dwellers do not need bees for their honey or wax. The supermarket, just a five-minute drive away, has shelves of it. But having bees in a city creates an artificial need that is pleasing to satisfy. The hive becomes another manufactured object of affection that requires maintenance, just like a dog that needs to be washed and walked. Yet unlike dogs, bees cannot be kept on leashes. Nor do they need to be. A keeper can make sure mites have not infested the hive or protect the hive from the cold of winter, but bees are largely self-sufficient. They gather their own ingredients and make their own food. They build the wax infrastructure of their home. Their survival hinges on their own work. Yet once human help is introduced, the bees lose this ownership over what they make. It is the keeper who bottles and sells the honey, gifting it to neighbors or manning a stand at the urban farmer’s market. The bee lives its life to add a drop to the bottle. 

A bee is an odd kind of pet because, unlike the kitten, the individual bee is essentially meaningless. A hive of bees functions collectively. A beekeeper is the owner of the hive, but cannot keep track of every single bee’s whereabouts in the way a shepherd watches over a flock. Driven by pheromones, in delicate choreography, worker bees, drones, and the queen each fulfill their own function as part of the larger whole. Within this framework, individual bees are given very specific roles and duties. It is difficult to detect an individual personality. Yet as a dynamic whole, the hive develops a collective voice that speaks and reacts to the outside. Most twentyfirst-century Americans tend to gather together as well, living in cities even when plenty of empty open space is available elsewhere. People put up buildings, find jobs, and settle into their routines. Like bees, people are social animals—they find security in being part of something larger. Beyond one’s own sense of belonging in an urban, metropolitan society, there is an ineffable attraction to the apiarian microcosm. We cannot help but hold up a wax-coated mirror to our surroundings.

Bees have a hypnotic buzz that ranges from calming white noise to an aggressive, pointed yell. The hive in aggregate, rather than the individual insect, becomes the pet, and as a pet, bees are dangerous. Each year, more deaths are attributed to bee venom allergy than to shark attacks and mountain lion mauling. An attempt to name bees, in the way that humans often name other animals, inevitably fails. The hive can never be fully anthropomorphized in the way the way traditional mammalian pets can be. 

In English, ‘pet’ can be a noun or a verb. A pet is a domesticated animal kept for its companionship or pleasure; to pet means either to make a pet of something, or to fondle or stroke. The idea of domestication and care are thus intimately tied to touch and physical affection. Bees can be taken from their native tree trunks and put into stone-grey boxes and transported to the city, but they are never quite domesticated. Keepers care for this larger organism, but coddle them only through a protective suit. One never pets the bees, but instead calms them with a smoker. One can grow attached, but always from a distance—a distance maintained even while bottling the bees’ honey and enjoying beeswax candlelit dinners, connecting with the days of a bucolic past. 

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Bees, up close, are furry, soft creatures. Often flying quickly, bees can seem a blur to the human eye. Yet their menacing black eyes stare down their environment. The sharp angular legs and pointed stinger in the rear contribute further to this odd contradiction.

One can smile at the bee’s earnest quest for pollen, but the bee will never smile back.