Membership to the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association has doubled over the past seven years and now totals about 600. "I think people are trying to go back to the old skills," says Nina Bagley, one of a growing number of urban beekeepers in Columbus.
On one of the firstnice days in March, Nina Bagley parks her beige Lincoln in a seemingly empty field behind Thurn's meat market. In the winter months, you'll find Bagley teaching patternmaking and design classes at Village Academy and the Cultural Arts Center. But today, she's traded her fashion–conscious clothes for long slacks, muddy work boots, a German Village T-shirt and a black mesh veil she fashioned over a straw hat.
From the Thurn's parking lot, the camouflaged emerald green wooden boxes lining the fence that separates the field and Interstate 71 aren't visible. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear these aren't ordinary boxes. Each one is home to a honeybee hive.
"I'm urban," she says as the sound of cars zooming past on the highway masks the buzzing. "Other beekeepers say they're urban, but this is urban."
Bagley is one of a growing number of urban beekeepers in Columbus. When she started in 2007, she was either the first or second beekeeper in this part of town, she says. Now, Bagley knows of at least 50 here and many more around Columbus and nearby cities. Rodney Pritchard, president of the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association, of which Bagley is a member, says membership has doubled in the seven years he's been with the club and now totals about 600. "I think people are trying to go back to the old skills," Bagley says. "We need to start canning again, start planting fruit trees, [keeping] bees and chickens. Everybody's trying to get back to a little more natural, no chemicals, no pesticides."
Bagley started beekeeping eight years ago at her home on Jaeger Street in German Village. "I saw an article on how bees were dying, and I thought, 'Since I live in the Village, I'll start with one hive and pollinate the Village,' " she says. "Because I knew the people in the city didn't do pesticides like they do in the country, and they put a lot of money into their gardens.
"I had to ask my neighbors before I put it in," she continues. "Were they allergic? How did they feel about it? And I put it in an area where it wouldn't affect them. I put a fence up so [the bees' flight path] would go up and over and not directly into their yard."
That first hive grew into four apiaries (including the one behind Thurn's), honey sales, a queen bee business and a reputation as the "bee lady." She sells honey at Thurn's and Katzinger's, and each year she ships queen bees all over the country. Her queens are highly sought-after because they're docile and resilient, having survived harsh Ohio winters.
While her business is booming, beekeeping is about much more than the bottom line for Bagley; it's about pollination and educating the community about bees and their importance. She mentors new beekeepers, assists with hives at Frank Fetch Park and the Ohio Statehouse and runs the bee pavilion, an area dedicated to bee education, at the Ohio State Fair.
The Whole Foods Market in Upper Arlington is also hoping to educate the community about bees this summer. A few years ago, Whole Foods started a company-wide pollinator education campaign called Share the Buzz. A handful of stores around the country have since established rooftop hives and, with the help of Stratford Ecological Center, the Upper Arlington store hopes to be next.
"It's been about a year in the works," says Tiffany Dixon, marketing team leader. "It stemmed from our store leader at the time and kind of trickled down to a passionate group of team members."
In early April, the store was waiting to hear back about a proposal submitted to the city (Upper Arlington has stricter restrictions than Columbus). If it's approved, employees plan to establish one or two hives on the store rooftop. While customers wouldn't be able to see the hive in person, they'd be able to watch a live stream in the store via cameras on the roof.
For Jodi Miller, an interest in beekeeping coincided with her desire to grow food. "I want a farm, but I don't want to leave the city," says the Olde Towne East resident and photographer. (Miller worked atColumbus Monthlyand still shoots the occasional freelance assignment for the magazine.) "So I was looking for something I could do right where I am. I read a book called 'Eat the City' by Robin Shulman, and the first chapter is about the beekeepers of New York. And I was like, 'If they can do it there, why can't I do it here?' "
So she signed up for a beekeeping class through the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association and began scouting locations for her hives. She started with two hives on the roof of the Hilton Columbus Downtown hotel, two on the Rain Brothers warehouse rooftop and one on a city-leased garden plot, where she also grows strawberries, lettuce and peas, in her neighborhood. But after a rough first winter-the polar vortex winter of 2013-only the Olde Towne East hive survived. Though she found out many other beekeepers lost hives that winter, she decided to scale back. Now, she keeps only the hive near her apartment and assists with hives at the Hilton (chefs at the hotel maintain them).
Located between a homeless shelter, a police station and a recreation center, her Olde Towne East hive is about as urban as it gets, which presents some challenges. "What I worry about here is little kids, people who don't know wandering over," she says. "There's a lot of foot traffic through here. I don't want a curious little kid to just pull the lid off of [the hive]." So she put a lock on the hive and, with the help of friends, built a fence around the garden. She hasn't had any complaints, she says, and she's been stung only twice.
For Miller, beekeeping is simply a hobby. She's still trying to learn the ropes and, other than potentially selling honey if she ever has excess, she has no desire to turn it into a business. "It's just a great break from photography, and it makes me be still," she says. "When you put on the suit, you're trying to be slow and still and gentle. So it's been really educational for me in a lot of ways that were unexpected."