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Like Bees to Honey: Helping Pollinators Form Healthier Colonies

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H2O Radio
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Gina Guarascio, an asset manager with Beacon Capital Partners, stands beside the company's rooftop hives in downtown Denver.

If you stroll the streets of Denver in the spring and summer, you’re bound to see bees buzzing around the city’s plentiful parks and planting beds. What you might be surprised to learn is that a growing number of those pollinators don’t live close to the ground—far from it.

Many are enjoying the high life atop skyscrapers like 1700 Broadway, an iconic Denver building designed by the world-famous architect I. M. Pei. From its 24th floor you can take in spectacular views west to the Rocky Mountains and east to Great Plains.

But it's probably the last place you'd expect to see beehives.

On an otherwise empty rooftop, hundreds of bees dart in and out of three hives, which look like wooden filing cabinets. They’re owned by Best Bees, a company that installs and manages hives for residential and commercial customers. Gina Guarascio, an asset manager with Beacon Capital Partners, which owns the 1700 Broadway building, is beaming as she points out the busy bee activity. “They look pretty happy,” she says, adding with a giggle, “Can't you see their smiles?”

Clients like Beacon are putting hives on their properties—whether office buildings, hotels, or corporate campuses—to support sustainability goals and meet demands from investors around environmental stewardship. Guarascio says Beacon has hives on over 50 of their buildings, and tenants seem to like having the bees around—they're treated to tours, contests to name the queen, jars of honey, and bottles of Beacon's own honey beer.

Hosting pollinators on rooftops might be good for a company's bottom line, but according to research, it's also good for bees. They are thriving in cities—more than in rural or suburban areas.

“It’s counterintuitive,” says Noah Wilson-Rich, one of the founders of Best Bees. Since launching the company in 2010 and installing hives in 14 cities coast to coast, he’s started to see a trend.

After comparing data from skyscraper rooftops to suburban gardens and decks to rural farms, pastures, and forests, he found that city bees were producing more honey and living longer than their rural and suburban counterparts. “One beehive made 128 pounds of honey in one year. And that is way high. We couldn't help but notice that the beehives in urban areas were making way more honey than the beehives in the countryside.”

Part of the reason, he says, is plant diversity. Like us, bees are healthier on a varied diet, and urban areas tend to have more diverse landscapes than suburbs where there are lots of lawns, which bees don’t like. And in rural areas, there are often monocultures where only one crop is being grown and pesticides can be in use.

Best Bee’s wants to boost populations across all these different habitats, and their efforts come at a time when U.S. beekeepers continue to report high rates of colony loss of over 45 percent. While adding more hives is helping to increase numbers and protect bees, honey production data gathered at each hive is supporting ongoing research to improve overall pollinator health—data points that happen to be sweet and edible.

Through their "HoneyDNA" project, Best Bees is analyzing the plant DNA genome in samples of honey they collect from their hives to measure the number of different plants. “We found eight times more plant diversity in urban areas compared to their nearby suburbs. Specifically in Boston, there were 411 different plants in one little taste, one teaspoon of honey—411 flavors compared to 52 to different plants in Duxbury, which is south of Boston.”

Honey is a valuable forensic tool because it never goes bad. It's kind of a CSI Beehive, where you can piece together a crime scene—in this case, solving the mystery of where the bees grabbed their pollen and nectar. “It's called genomics," Wilson-Rich says, "It's just like 23andMe or AncestryDNA, and now it's applied to plants for the first time.”

Starting in September, people can explore the data they’ve been collecting. Best Bees, along with their nonprofit Urban Beekeeping Laboratory, are launching their HoneyDNA website, where a visitor can click a map location to see the top five plants bees are visiting in that area and add them to their gardens to support colonies. The project is a partnership with NASA and Google Earth, which overlayed hive data on satellite maps to identify so-called “Blue Zones”—places where bees are thriving—like near that downtown Denver highrise.

Wilson-Rich has a theory about why bees like skyscraper rooftops, even when there’s not a single plant around. “It might be less energetically costly for them to live up there because they can just kind of skydive and ride a wave right down to a flower patch." He thinks they might then surf back up by catching urban heat upwelling from hot concrete and asphalt.

Regardless, he wasn’t surprised that bees do well on tall buildings. Working with MIT, Best Bees recently sent two queens and their retinues into space. “We wanted to understand how bees can be the most resilient as possible,” he says, adding that by having bees successfully travel into space could open up the possibility of one day raising colonies on the moon or even Mars.

The bees flew on the same Blue Origin rocket that Jeff Bezos took a year later and happily returned to MIT—even if the Bezos trip got a lot more buzz.

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This story was written in partnership with H2O Radio, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.

Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.

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