Michael Smith graduated from Harvard University with a focus on sustainability in 2014. His capstone project was introducing pollinators back into his community of Roxbury, New Jersey. Smith learned the value of beekeeping and has made an impact in his community by bringing local people together to contribute to sustainable cottage industries and reintroduce pollinators in the area. Food Tank talked to Smith about the “hive” of activity that is surrounding his community.
Food Tank (FT): Michael, can you give a rundown on what you were trying to accomplish with this project?
Michael Smith (MS): The concept I was attempting to develop was a community that knows each other. Through the course of time, people move, and urban sprawl takes over. It never was this way when I was a child; people knew their neighbors and people got out and were active in their communities. What I have found is that people don’t know their neighbors anymore. There has to be something that is inclusive of everyone. Bees are a connecting point between people and their food. If bees don’t pollinate, then we have lost a major part of our food source!
FT: Wow, that’s fascinating! How did you begin to approach this problem?
MS: I approached the Roxbury Environmental Commission—they had a community garden on one side and nothing on the other. I asked if I could put honeybees on the other side of the property and after much thought they said yes! I decided to start a free beekeeping class and opened it up to everyone in town. All of the sudden, everyone became interested and wanted to keep bees. People who didn’t even know each other wanted to help everyone and we all carpooled and picked up the bees and installed them. What started out as an extremely isolated community came together and started meeting up to talk about possible problems with the hives or parasites.
FT: How did you sort through the logistics?
MS: We all met on the weekends at first, but within three years, we went from me with three hives to 15 people with 17 hives! People who never would have associated with each other suddenly developed relationships. We created an educational program, and it has propagated to other communities. We hope to have 40 hives next year.
FT: What were some of the reactions that you received and what was the main issue you were trying to advocate?
MS: I was attempting to spread the word about the importance of pollinators and the impact on the environment. Through this, people in the community started thinking about what sort of plants they plant in their gardens; even the community garden has profited from it. In front of the apiary, we planted a permaculture garden to create a sustainable food source for the bees. In a way, it’s like re-wilding the environment.
FT: Michael, what are some of the biggest challenges you have faced with keeping bees in an urban setting and how has the community responded?
MS: Well, I suppose the biggest problem that I faced with this was the sheer number of people that were interested in community beekeeping. When I held my first class on a snowy Sunday in January, I thought only two or three people would show up—five at the most. But 18 people showed up! Eighteen people trudged through the snow to the Environmental Community Center to listen to what I had to say—I was shocked! I have been approached by people from out of town who have hives and want to donate the hive to the community center. So our apiary is continuing to grow!
FT: Have people in the community been able to develop their micro-honey industries?
MS: Absolutely! There is an organic farm stand up the street and people in the community as well as people out of town suck up the honey because it is local.
FT: Is the honey organic?
MS: Well, we would all like to think so, but the answer is no. Bees have a radius flight of three miles from the hive. There is no way that you can control what plants the bees are feeding off of and if those plants are organic. The entire “organic” honey phenomenon seems to be just a marketing ploy at this point; what sells it is that it is local.
FT: How else have these novice beekeepers been able to impact their community?
MS: Well, at the apiary there is no fee to keep your bees. But we do ask that the keepers donate some of their honey to the Roxbury Environmental Fair. All proceeds from the sales of local honey go directly to the food pantry.
FT: So in a way it closes the loop between apiaries, the environment, and community.
FT: Michael, what is next on the horizon?
MS: Well I think we are going to run a regression analysis to see if gardeners who are growing veggies in the area have larger yields because of the influx of bees. So far it is hard to tell but it is something to watch—I will keep you posted on all the exciting developments!
Smith is continuing to use his study of bees, the environment, and community to foster change in his local food chain. In doing so, he has brought people together to impact their local economy and build a sustainable framework for other communities to follow.