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food / travel

The Sweet Spread Of Urban Honey

Did you know that city life is good for bees?

In St. Margrethen, Switzerland
In St. Margrethen, Switzerland
Veronique Zbiden

GENEVA — Try that honey flavored with lime, or with scents of thyme and lavender, or another with an aromatic touch of hazelnut. What do these different kinds of honey have in common? They are all made by urban bees.

The phenomenon may surprise, but should not worry you: yes, urban honey can taste better and bees may actually be happier to live in cities.

Bee colonies have quietly invaded our cities over the past few years for the express purpose of producing honey. The first such hive was installed on the roof of the Opéra de Paris by a props worker at the beginning of the 1980s.

Since then, they have spread to other major metropoli: including dozens in London, 300 in Paris, twice as many in Berlin and in Switzerland. Here in Geneva, a variety of people and institutions are dedicated to the well-being of the hives: local government workers, theaters, schools and even shopping centers and hotels. Same thing in Zurich which even sells its own honey named the Zürihonig.

But what drives all these city-dwellers to become beekeepers?

Restoring biodiversity

In Lausanne, the first hives were installed in 2009 to restore biodiversity and plant life. "At first, it was not about honey. Bees transfer pollen from plant to plant and therefore, enable fertilization and reproduction in our parks," explains Sébastien Liardon, who runs the city's project. Cities, he says, actually boast a "wonderful bioversity that the countryside, with the single-crop farming, has lost."

Around the airport of Cointrin, near Geneva, bees pollinate 140 various vegetal species and even a particular orchid which is not found elsewhere in Switzerland.

Thanks to this variety, the quality of the urban honey is superior, says Liardon, who also notes that is also healthier because it can stimulate our metabolism and be a natural remedy against a sore throat.

An unpolluted honey

But what about the urban pollution? Doesn't it affect the quality of city-made honey? According to Bertrand Stämpfli, spokeperson of the Cointrin airport and beekeeper, therein lies the source of the paradox. "This honey comes from a supposedly polluting industrial platform but does not contain any trace of kerosene or hydrocarbon," he says.

It is the same in Lausanne and Zurich: no trace of pollution. Most urban gardeners banished all kinds of pesticides or insecticides that are sometimes used in the countryside.

"The bee does not care if there are pesticides in a rapeseed field, it will go there if it is the easiest way to gather pollen. This would result in a mediocre honey," says Peter Schneider, a former architect who is now a beekeeper in Zurich.

Life in the city can also be better for the bees themselves. With milder temperatures, they live longer and are more productive: in the city, an apiary can produce up to 30 kilograms each year, more than twice as much as in the countryside.

Only the beginning?

But will urban honey production stick for the long run? Jean-Daniel Charrière, who works for the Swiss Bee Research Center of Agroscope, says the city has "significant potential" to become the center of honey-making in the future.

"Nowadays, city dwellers want to reconnect with this idyll of nature, which they can do just by installing hives on their roofs or in their gardens," Charrière says. But he also warns that this practice may contain risks such as the transmission of diseases from one bee colony to another.

So in cities, as in the countryside, the spreading of bees offers the same chance for a sweet reward, if you can manage to avoid the proverbial sting.

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