On a recent cloud-covered Monday, Trey Flemming scales a short ladder propped against the side of Weavers Way Co-op in Chestnut Hill. It’s been about ten days since he installed three bee hives on the food market’s roof and it’s time for an inspection.
“I’m going to check the one on the far-end first,” says Flemming after towing three wooden frames, a paint bucket of pine needles and a small smoker to the top.
The Berks County resident packs and lights a clump of needles he’s placed inside the smoker. The woody vapors, he says, will make his intrusion less startling for the European honeybees.
Flemming then gets to work, carefully examining several frames worth of bees. Before moving on, he glides his finger across a long-tentacle-like comb where some honey is oozing out.
“That’s great,” he says with a satisfied smile after sucking the golden goo from his hand.
Flemming, 34, is one half of a nascent wholesale honey venture in Philadelphia appropriately run under the banner of Urban Apiaries. Along with Annie Baum-Stein, the battle-tested beekeeper manages hives at six locations from Passyunk Avenue to Germantown Avenue.
In addition to the site at Weavers Way, the company operates hives at two locations in West Philadelphia and one each in South Philadelphia, Queen Village and North Philadelphia.
All but two – both private backyards – are roof-based.
“Our main goal is sustainable bee-keeping,” says Baum-Stein, 36, who handles the marketing and outreach part of the partnership. “The honey is just the beautiful byproduct of it.”
The pair first got together in 2009 and immediately started dreaming about city-based honey. Baum-Stein had recently opened Milk & Honey Market in West Philadelphia. Flemming, an owner-operator at Two Gander Farm in Oley, Pa., was the store’s first vendor.
“The minute we could, we started working on what we then called Summer in the City Honey,” says Baum-Stein, who had no previous experience with the world of beekeeping.
Flemming, who had already been producing country honey for a few years, was equally excited about the possibility.
“I had been wanting to get some locations in the city anyway, so we just decided we were going to do some outreach and see if we could find volunteers for locations,” says Flemming.
The initiative started in earnest last spring. The team rebranded the honey after a successful first year.
A sweet business exchange
Urban Apiaries is a for-profit company, but it has a somewhat unique arrangement with its hive hosts. Instead of money, Flemming and Baum-Stein pay for their backyard and rooftop rights in honey.
In exchange for the access, each location gets five, free pounds of honey per hive, per season.
“And then they have the opportunity to purchase as much honey as they want from their hives up to a certain point,” says Flemming. He adds that he typically keeps about 20 percent of the yield for direct retail.
Each hive can produce anywhere from 60 to 120 lbs of honey, says Flemming. The honey retails for about $1 per ounce, says Baumstein.
At Weavers Way and Milk & Honey Market, the sweet stuff hits the shelves. At Paradiso Restaurant, it hits the plate.
But at the Share Food Program Inc. building near East Falls on Hunting Park Avenue, it’s siphoned off into plastic honey bear molds and placed into affordable food packages. The nonprofit offers them to residents in exchange for two hours of “good deed” time, according to its website.
The price of those packages, which include a variety of other items like pasta and produce, is typically half of what a shopper would pay at the store, according to Share’s website.
“They do something like 500 honey bears that they will pass out over the season,” says Flemming of the 14-hive site.
Maximizing honey yields
Flemming says there are a number of benefits to producing honey in the city. The bottom line, though, is that the bees and their hives thrive better in urban settings.
For starters, the bees aren’t exposed to the chemicals of large-scale agriculture like their country counterparts. The man-made substances don’t necessarily affect taste, says Flemming, but they certainly can affect the overall health of the honeybees. That danger is most present during the season’s hot, sun-soaked months.
“What you find in the summer, when most of your nectar producing plants are finished in the country, that’s when your bees start to suffer from brood diseases and nutritional problems,” says Flemming.
Flemming says city-based bees also have a wider variety of nectar plants for a longer stretch of the honey season.
“Street trees, flowering trees, window boxes, even hanging baskets on the lamp post down Germantown Avenue. When you add all of those up over blocks and blocks you’re talking about a significant amount of flowers,” says Flemming.
Those two factors, among others, translate into higher honey yields, he adds.
Based on the venture’s first season, Flemming’s urban hives produced 50 percent more honey than the ones he keeps in the country. On average, a country hive produced 60 pounds. In the city, it was closer to 90 pounds.
They also can translate into a wide variety of honey as the season progresses.
“You might find one hive that finds a grove of chestnuts and the other hive happens to be locked on a completely different type of flower at the same time,” says Flemming.
[There’s an] amazing complexity of flavor,” says Baumstein. “It’s just so counter-intuitive.”
Preparing for a late summer rollout
Urban Apiaries will likely harvest the honey at Weavers Way and other locations around July for an August retail rollout.
The honey from each site will be bottled by zip code – 19118 for Chestnut Hill for example.
Moving forward, Baum-Stein says the company will likely expand. The venture has doubled the number of hives in its second season from 15 to 30.
“We’d love to be in every zip code,” she says.
And while it’s hard to nail down, Flemming attributes some of the venture’s success to the city’s growing local food movement.
“People want to bring things more back to the region,” says Flemming. “Producing honey in the city is going right along with that.”
“We’re bringing things as close as you can to people’s doors,” he adds.