Erika Mayr: Bees In The City

My friends Anna and Marcus have recently launched Viertel Vor, a blog about sustainability. Many of their articles are more than just critical views or green ideology. In fact, their most striking articles revolve about urban life. They generously let me excerpt and comment on their interview of urban beekeeper Erika Mayr.
2 Sep ’16 by Sara Community, Making Berlin

Berlin is a hotbed for creativity, not just when it comes to the fine arts and pop-culture, but also in many ways that shape our spatial understanding of life within and outside of nature. While sometimes all we encounter are blocks of concrete, sparsely decorated with some functional green parks and relaxing areas for human beings, we rarely acknowledge how nature finds its ways through our man-made cities. But we’re not the only ones who thrive in a metropolis: Bees do, too. One of my favorite features on Viertel-Vor is about urban beekeeper Erika Mayr (Link in German).

On the rooftop of the famous nightclub Tresor, located in the gigantic and impressive former power plant in Mitte1, two of Erika Mayrs beehives are enjoying the view over Berlin. As I’d learned a few years ago, bees love the city life. Mayr 2 explains in her interview with Viertel Vor how bees can actually provide much better for themselves in an urban environment than on the countryside. Here, they can find a much grander variety of pollen and nectar. With as many as 400.000 trees in Berlin, they indulge in a decadent buffet of many choices.

Urban Beekeeping in Berlin

But what gives? Mayr goes on to explain that the use of pesticides has restricted the possibilities for bees, mono-cultures such as potatoes and corn don’t provide nutrition at all to the little insects, and the grass is mowed so often that little flowers don’t have enough time to grow.

With these reasons in mind it is only logical that the city is becoming a better place for bees to live. And urban beekeeping is not just for professionals: at  Prinzessinnengärten in Kreuzberg, for example, people can partake in workshops to learn more about beekeeping in the city.

But, as Erika Mayr says, urban beekeeping is also looked upon skeptically. Nobody likes to be stung by a bee, and nobody wants bees continuously drowning in their cold beverages on a hot summer night. That’s why rooftops have become the best places to keep beehives, but that’s not the only reason. Erika Mayr tries to place her bees in zones where they’re not pampered by climate. The logic behind it is fascinating: these urban spaces are usually not pressured by pesticides. But the bees have to re-learn how to survive in harsher conditions. Which is why the spot on top of the power plant is perfect. The bees are undisturbed here, and can be trained to adapt themselves to strong winds and colder weather.

Why bees are so important to our ecosystem has been discussed over and over in the media in recent years. But our lifestyles have been threatening their existence to an extent where people are collectively starting to get worried. That’s not exactly what I want to discuss here, though. While I encourage everybody to learn more about bees, I am quite happy having discovered that they can live a great life in our cities – that we can share our space with them without getting in the way of each other.

Urbanity Inverted: Bees Come, People Go

While Marcus and Anna, who produced the amazing pictures of Erika Mayrs beehives on top of the Kraftwerk, focus on sustainability and locality, I see something else symbolized in the urban beekeeping trend: the contemporary dissolution of the city/country binarity.

In the past years, urban gardening, urban beekeeping and other nature-focused endeavors have brought the countryside into our cities. Plus, there’s a steady trend of urbanization world-wide. 3. But what rarely seems visible in the discourse is the expansion of urban lifestyles into the countryside. Perhaps I’m lacking the educational background here, or I haven’t found the right term to Google for, but as far as my personal knowledge is concerned, I wonder how to describe the phenomena of leaving the city in order to reproduce it outside of its typical urban (infra-)structures.

It can manifest itself in little things, such as an exclusive festival on the countryside, or in urban projects that are launched in the periphery instead of the center of a metropolis – things that are deemed intrinsically urban become visible beyond urban borders.

The old signifiers of urban life versus the life on the countryside seem old-fashioned and dated.4. Just like bees are able to thrive on top of a nightlife symbol, some of us are starting to thrive in the outskirts of Berlin, within nature, but not without urbanity. As we’ve become more restricted in the city – turbo-capitalism taking away our affordable spaces, the pressure of social and economical acceptance becoming too hard to manage – we are learning to step outside.

Obviously, my judgement is anecdotal, but I’m hearing more and more whispers of Brandenburg. Not just among my aging group of friends, but also from younger people who seem saturated from the city-life. Not because of the city – I don’t particularly believe anybody wants to escape and become reclusive – but because of what cities are becoming at their geographical core: spaces designed for economic functionality rather than urban life; the pesticide of community.

  1. aka Kraftwerk Mitte
  2. Erika Mayr has written a book about urban beekeeping in German and sells her self-produced honey
  3. There would be many sources to quote here, but just for a general overview, this quote should suffice: "The rural population of the world has grown slowly since 1950 and is expected to reach its peak around 2020. The global rural population is now close to 3.4 billion and is expected to decline to 3.1 billion by 2050. While Africa and Asia are urbanizing rapidly, the regions are still home to nearly 90 per cent of the world’s rural population. India has the largest rural population with 857 million, followed by China with 635 million." From
  4. Urban is usually defined by population density in a geographically restricted space, but I want to clarify that urban has a cultural meaning just as well, in that the city-life is something that can transcend city-dwelling. There's a significant portion of people who have lived in the city who somehow subscribe to an urban lifestyle and perhaps even an urban mindset, but I think in our information age, it's become harder to actually draw the line between what's urban and what isn't in terms of social norms. Therefore, I will leave you without a clear definition - the question of what's urban always depends on whom you ask and the perspective you're asking from