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EXPLORE Science

A DOLLOP OF

SWEET SCIENCE

Like wine and beer, honey has an array of flavor notes that can be tricky to pinpoint. A honey’s taste is influenced by the types of nectar and pollen bees collect. But until recently scientists couldn’t say precisely what bees fed on or where.

 

Now, by sequencing the genetic material in honey, scientists can tell which plants are in the sweet stuff. Noah Wilson-Rich, founder of the Best Bees Company, an urban beekeeping service, heads a study profiling the DNA of honey from major U.S. cities.

 

Samples are taken from hives in city

centers. DNA tests reveal how many plant species honeybees visit within the foraging range of three to five miles, showing what plants they prefer. Wilson-­Rich says higher plant diversity in urban areas could be one reason that city hives are healthier and more productive than many rural ones.

Written by Kelsey Nowakowski

Graphic by Daisy Chung and Clare Trainor

BOSTON (total land area: 48 sq mi)

The number of managed hives in

Boston grew from just a handful in past

decades to more than 175 today. One

honey sample from the city contained

411 plant species—diversity that helps

urban bees flourish.

Top three plants

for honeybees*

Linden

Sumac

Apple

N

City

limits

Urban green space

SAN FRANCISCO (47 sq mi)

Hospitable climate and residents

combine with no restrictions to

make the city a haven for bees.

Pine

Eucalyptus

Rosemary

SEATTLE (84 sq mi)

A leader in urban farming and

sustainability, Seattle was an early

adopter of beekeeping regulation.

Cypress

Linden

White

sweet

clover

PORTLAND, OR (133 sq mi)

It’s called the City of Roses, and the

flower is the most prominent plant

in its honey DNA.

Sweet

chestnut

Begonia

Rose

NEW YORK (303 sq mi)

Even luxury hotels host hives: The

InterContinental in Times Square

uses its rooftop honey in cocktails.

Locust

Linden

Stonecrop

WASHINGTON, DC (61 sq mi)

In a test to see where bees can

prosper, D.C.’s wastewater treatment

plant has four hives on its roof.

Cedar

Clover

Egyptian

grass

CHICAGO (228 sq mi)

The mayor paved the way for urban

beekeeping by installing hives at City Hall

eight years before it became legal.

Linden

Clover

White

sweet

clover

Making city bees legal

Los Angeles outlawed hives in 1879 due to misguided fears that bees attacked fruit crops but joined other major U.S. cities when it legalized hives in 2015. Beekeeping was often present before city regulation. Currently most cities require that hives be kept a certain distance from property lines.

Current requirements

Permit

Fee

Registration

Number of hives under limit

2017

1880-1965

1975

1985

1995

2005

Los Angeles

Year beekeeping

was banned

Boston

Washington, DC

Chicago

New York

Year beekeeping became legal

Seattle

Portland, OR

Regulation goes back to at least 1968.

San Francisco

What’s in city honey?

A high diversity of plants—even nonflowering ones—helps bees thrive in cities. Insects that feed on sap-producing plants such as conifers expel honeydew, a sweet secretion that bees collect and make into honey.

52%

Flowering

trees

19%

Conifers

29%

Flowers,

grasses,

and shrubs

*Results based on preliminary data. Plants not drawn to scale.

†Cities not drawn to scale

Sources: Noah Wilson-Rich, The Best Bees Company; USGS PAD-US; U.S. Census Bureau; District of Columbia; Cities of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, SAN FRANCISCO, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon

A DOLLOP OF SWEET SCIENCE

Like wine and beer, honey has an array of flavor notes that can be tricky to pinpoint. A honey’s taste is influenced by the types of nectar and pollen bees collect. But until recently scientists couldn’t say precisely what bees fed on or where.

 

Now, by sequencing the genetic material in honey, scientists can tell which plants are in the sweet stuff. Noah Wilson-Rich, founder of the Best Bees Company, an urban beekeeping service, heads a study profiling the DNA of honey from major U.S. cities.

 

Samples are taken from hives in city centers. DNA tests reveal how many plant species honeybees visit within the foraging range of three to five miles, showing what plants they prefer. Wilson-­Rich says higher plant diversity in urban areas could be one reason that city hives are healthier and more productive than many rural ones.

Written by Kelsey Nowakowski

Graphic by Daisy Chung and Clare Trainor

BOSTON (total land area: 48 sq mi)

The number of managed hives in Boston grew from just a handful in past decades to more than 175 today. One honey sample from the city contained 411 plant species—diversity that helps urban bees flourish.

Linden

Top three plants

for honeybees*

Apple

Sumac

Urban green space

N

City

limits

Recorded beehives

(data available for Boston only)

Pine

Cypress

Linden

Sweet

chestnut

Eucalyptus

Rose

Begonia

White

sweet

clover

Rosemary

PORTLAND, OR (133 sq mi)

It’s called the City of Roses, and the

flower is the most prominent plant in its honey DNA.

SAN FRANCISCO (47 sq mi)

Hospitable climate and residents

combine with no restrictions to

make the city a haven for bees.

SEATTLE (84 sq mi)

A leader in urban farming and

sustainability, Seattle was an early

adopter of beekeeping regulation.

Locust

Cedar

Linden

Linden

Clover

Clover

Stonecrop

White

sweet

clover

Egyptian

grass

NEW YORK (303 sq mi)

Even luxury hotels host hives: The

InterContinental in Times Square

uses its rooftop honey in cocktails.

WASHINGTON, DC (61 sq mi)

In a test to see where bees can

prosper, D.C.’s wastewater treatment

plant has four hives on its roof.

CHICAGO (228 sq mi)

The mayor paved the way for urban

beekeeping by installing hives at City Hall

eight years before it became legal.

Making city bees legal

Los Angeles outlawed hives in 1879 due to misguided fears that bees attacked fruit crops but joined other major U.S. cities when it legalized hives in 2015. Beekeeping was often present before city regulation. Currently most cities require that hives be kept a certain distance from property lines.

Number of hives under limit

Fee

Registration

Current requirements

Permit

1975

1875

1880-1965

1970

1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

2017

Los Angeles

Year beekeeping

became legal

Year beekeeping

was banned

Boston

Washington, DC

Chicago

New York

Regulation

goes back to

at least 1968.

Seattle

Portland, OR

San Francisco

What’s in city honey?

A high diversity of plants—even nonflowering ones—helps bees thrive in cities. Insects that feed on sap-producing plants such as conifers expel honeydew, a sweet secretion that bees collect and make into honey.

52% Flowering trees

29% Flowers, grasses, and shrubs

19% Conifers

*Results based on preliminary data. Plants not drawn to scale

†Cities not drawn to scale

Sources: Noah Wilson-Rich, The Best Bees Company; USGS PAD-US; U.S. Census Bureau;

District of Columbia; Cities of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, SAN FRANCISCO, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon

A DOLLOP OF SWEET SCIENCE

Like wine and beer, honey has an array of flavor notes that can be tricky to pinpoint. A honey’s taste is influenced by the types of nectar and pollen bees collect. But until recently scientists couldn’t say precisely what bees fed on or where.

 

Now, by sequencing the genetic material in honey, scientists can tell which plants are in the sweet stuff. Noah Wilson-Rich, founder of the Best Bees Company, an urban beekeeping service, heads a study profiling the DNA of honey from major U.S. cities.

 

Samples are taken from hives in city centers. DNA tests reveal how many plant species honeybees visit within the foraging range of three to five miles, showing what plants they prefer. Wilson-­Rich says higher plant diversity in urban areas could be one reason that city hives are healthier and more productive than many rural ones.

Written by Kelsey Nowakowski

Graphic by Daisy Chung and Clare Trainor

BOSTON (total land area: 48 sq mi)

The number of managed hives in

Boston grew from just a handful in

past decades to more than 175 today.

One honey sample from the city

contained 411 plant species—diversity

that helps urban bees flourish.

Linden

Top three plants

for honeybees*

Apple

Sumac

Urban green space

N

City

limits

Recorded beehives

(data available for Boston only)

Cypress

Sweet

chestnut

Linden

Rose

Begonia

White

sweet

clover

PORTLAND, OR (133 sq mi)

It’s called the City of Roses, and the

flower is the most prominent plant in its honey DNA.

SEATTLE (84 sq mi)

A leader in urban farming and

sustainability, Seattle was an early

adopter of beekeeping regulation.

Locust

Cedar

Linden

Clover

Stonecrop

Egyptian

grass

NEW YORK (303 sq mi)

Even luxury hotels host hives: The

InterContinental in Times Square

uses its rooftop honey in cocktails.

WASHINGTON, DC (61 sq mi)

In a test to see where bees can

prosper, D.C.’s wastewater treatment

plant has four hives on its roof.

Pine

Linden

Eucalyptus

Clover

White

sweet

clover

Rosemary

SAN FRANCISCO (47 sq mi)

Hospitable climate and residents

combine with no restrictions to

make the city a haven for bees.

CHICAGO (228 sq mi)

The mayor paved the way for urban

beekeeping by installing hives at City Hall

eight years before it became legal.

Making city bees legal

Los Angeles outlawed hives in 1879 due to misguided fears that bees attacked fruit crops but joined other major U.S. cities when it legalized hives in 2015. Beekeeping was often present before city regulation. Currently most cities require that hives be kept a certain distance from property lines.

Number of hives under limit

Fee

Registration

Current requirements

Permit

1975

1875

1880-1965

1970

1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

2017

Los Angeles

Year beekeeping

became legal

Year beekeeping

was banned

Boston

Washington, DC

Chicago

New York

Regulation

goes back to

at least 1968.

Seattle

Portland, OR

San Francisco

What’s in city honey?

A high diversity of plants—even nonflowering ones—helps bees thrive in cities. Insects that feed on sap-producing plants such as conifers expel honeydew, a sweet secretion that bees collect and make into honey.

52% Flowering trees

29% Flowers, grasses, and shrubs

19% Conifers

*Results based on preliminary data. Plants not drawn to scale

†Cities not drawn to scale

Sources: Noah Wilson-Rich, The Best Bees Company; USGS PAD-US; U.S. Census Bureau;

District of Columbia; Cities of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, SAN FRANCISCO, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon



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