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The Secret Life of Bees in Our Buildings

In April of 2019, the world watched in horror as one of the most famous buildings in the western world, the Notre Dame Cathedral, caught fire. Firefighters raced to save the historic cathedral, what has been called the “soul of Paris,” from collapse as its wooden roof joists burned. Luckily, the fire was put out before we lost one of the cultural jewels of Western civilization. Besides saving the art, architecture, and history that is housed inside the church, the bravery and cunning of the Paris Fire Brigade also saved tens of thousands of lives as well. I am speaking, of course, of the bees that live in hives on the roof.

Notre Dame is not the only building in Paris that acts as an ornate pedestal for bee apartments. It is estimated that there are more than 700 rooftops bee colonies throughout the city, other famous attractions like the Musee d’Orsay and the Opera Garnier also have beehives perched above the throngs of tourists that visit them. In the dense mass of buildings that is Paris, bees serve an important role, they provide much-needed biodiversity, help pollinate the beautiful flowers that adorn the city’s balconies, and are a bit of a beloved cultural oddity. A tiny 12-gram jar of honey harvested from the city’s famous Opera house sells for over $20, making it one of the most expensive in the world. 

The Parisians were early adopters of the bee trend and, much like other trends that originate in the city of light, it caught on elsewhere. Many of the prominent New York landlords have installed beehives in their properties as well. There are some at the top of the Rockefeller Center, The Javits Center, and even an apartment tower in Brooklyn. In fact, Goldman Sachs is considering installing beehives in all of its buildings across the U.S., pending the success of a few pilot locations. 

But why all the buzz around rooftop hives? There are many reasons for building owners to create living spaces for our anthophilic friends. Some are using it as an amenity for multifamily owners and renters who yearn for natural hobbies. Garden co-ops and chicken coops are also becoming popular. Others see it as a job perk that can help bring people back to the office. They have also been used as a prospecting tool. Tishman Spire has used bees to bring some exposure to their flexible office solution Zo. In a Facebook post in September of 2020 they proclaimed, “We’re welcoming thousands of new Zo members to our New York and Paris offices. Our rooftop bees will spend the final days of summer pollinating urban flora, which we’ll harvest into honey at the end of the season. Want to visit our beehives, meet the beekeepers and sample our very own Zo honey?”

Office landlords are doing whatever they can to compliment a larger sustainability push by corporate America and if that means supporting one of nature’s most important insects, then so be it. There is always a concern that flashy initiatives like beekeeping can be used as greenwashing by the property industry. But even the most skeptical can see the value in repopulating our cities with earth’s original colonizers. Bee populations have been dwindling and many worry that it would have devastating effects on our ecosystem. Plus, bee husbandry has been shown to improve mental health. This might be one of the reasons that beekeeping soared during the pandemic; one new bee enthusiast even went so far as to call a beehive “a box of calm.”

The positive benefit of bees in our cities and our lives might not be enough to cause landlords to overlook the sting of maintaining a hive on their property. That is where regulators are stepping in. The English seaside resort town of Brighton, now requires any new buildings to come with ‘bee bricks.’ These ingenious clay blocks have hollow cavities that can be accessed through bee-sized holes and can serve as a home for “solitary bees” which, based on that description, must be a bit too socially awkward to live with the other cool bees in the popular hive. 

The health of the natural environment seems to be becoming a larger part of our purchasing decisions for many products. Meat alternatives seem to be taking hold in mainstream cuisine, sustainable sourcing is now the norm for many fashion brands, and organically grown produce can now be found in discount stores like Walmart. So with this push towards more ecologically minded consumption why wouldn’t we see people pay a premium for living or office space with bees. Even though it might seem like a new idea, it is important to remember that there is evidence of beekeeping by humans as far back as 9,000 years ago. Bees were part of our lives before buildings and now, hopefully, they can coexist with them.

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