What’s the buzz? Madison works to become a Bee City

Usually when we encounter bees we worry about what they will do to us—sting us, crawl into our pop cans  or buzz around our homes while we crouch in the corner wielding a broomstick. However, in the city of Madison, bees are being recognized as an important part of the local ecology and urban agriculture. 

Madison is in the early planning stages of becoming a certified Bee City. A Bee City encourages dialogue to raise awareness of the need for pollinators and aims to provide pollinators with healthy habitats within the city. Currently there are 37 certified Bee Cities in the U.S., two of which are in Wisconsin, Hales Corners and Mequon.

The city’s efforts are part of a larger, statewide effort to promote and protect the honey bee. The state named the honey bee as the Wisconsin state insect in 1977, despite it being a non-native species, and relies heavily on pollinators in the agricultural industry. Pollinator-dependent crops account for over $55 million in the state’s annual crop production, and honey and beeswax account for $3.5 million annually.


A beehive placed in a host’s backyard. (Nathan Clarke/Mad Urban Bees)A beehive placed in a host’s backyard. (Nathan Clarke/Mad Urban Bees)


In terms of world-wide impact, about one-third of crops rely on pollinators, such as bees, moths, butterflies, bats and hummingbirds. According to Pollinator Partnership, an organization that works to protect the lives of pollinators and preserve their habitats, one in every three bites of food result from pollinator-dependent crops.

But for the past decade in Wisconsin, the honey bee population has drastically  declined. From spring 2014 to spring 2015 alone, the state lost about 60 percent of its honey bee colonies. This is thought to be due to pesticide use, habitat destruction and various diseases and parasites, but mainly is due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a condition where the worker bees have disappeared from the hive and no dead bees are usually found, while the queen bee and some immature bees remain. 

Recognizing these threats to the bee population,  the city of Madison began investigating how best to combat these issues a few years ago.

In 2014 a Pollinator Protection Task Force (PPTF) was created to review current practices that might impact pollinators, such as use of pesticides and the mowing patterns of different departments, and then implement new strategies to improve pollinator health. This task force created a report that the Pollinator Protection Work Group (PPWG), a sub-group of the Madison Food Policy Council, is now planning to implement.

To officially become a Bee City, Madison must complete several requirements outlined in a resolution. These requirements include sustaining pollinator-friendly habitat, annually celebrating National Pollinator Week or a similar pollinator-focused occasion, installing and maintaining a Bee City USA street sign, creating a webpage that has a copy of the city’s Bee City Resolution, and devising a comprehensive plan to sustain these requirements.

Madison plans to combat the extreme loss of honey bees and other pollinators by restoring pollinator habitat using several different strategies. One such strategy is in the form of Madison’s own local bee-lover, Nathan Clarke.

Clarke is the owner and operator of Mad Urban Bees,a commercial urban apiary that focuses not only on producing honey, but also on the benefits bees bring to Madison’s local ecosystem and urban food landscape. He’s also a former member of the now disbanded PPTF as well as current member of the PPWG, has played a large role in moving the city towards become pollinator-friendly and continues to be a part of the process. He has been in the beekeeping business since 2012 and has been a beekeeper for about nine years.

In Clarke’s own words: “Bees thrive in the city.”

His beehives are hosted in the backyards and the rooftops of local residents because cities, especially Madison, have many flowering trees, gardens and ornamental flowers allowing for a more versatile variety for pollinators to choose from. Also in Madison the growing season is longer than in the surrounding farmland which aids in the production of honey as well as giving pollinators (bees and others) a longer chance to—well, pollinate. 

“There’s a lot of different ways of supporting pollinators, and it’s not just having a hive. If you’re going to be planting, plant flowers in your yard. Another is don’t spray your dandelions, all those companies that come and spray your yard—don’t. Let those dandelions bloom that first year, and then mow them down after that. A lot of those dandelions are a really great nectar and pollen source first thing in spring not just for bees but for a ton of pollinators,” Clarke said.

The PPWG doesn’t limit their work to only aiding bees either. In a joint effort with the Edible Landscapes & Terrace Plantings Work Group, the Rain Garden cost sharing program was created. The program allows homeowners to plant rain gardens on the city-owned terraces in front of their houses. These rain gardens could provide additional flowers and plants for many pollinators besides bees, such as monarch butterflies, moths, bats and hummingbirds.

Clarke thinks becoming a Bee City is a step forward for Madison.

“I think that there is going to be more urban agriculture in years to come, so having that bee-friendly and that pollinator protection will not just help the ecology, the biodiversity around Madison, but it’s also going to allow us to do things in the future that are going to be very beneficial to the city,” Clarke said. 

The PPWG has numerous goals to meet in the next two to three years: creating a space where the public can obtain information on pollinators, examining climate and current city policies, collaboration with school districts and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to plant for pollinators, and identifying environmental corridors for further development of pollinator habitat. To help meet these specific goals as well as others, the group developed a relationship with Beichen Tian, a graduate student whose capstone project is an Interactive Web App Development for Pollinator Habitat Sustainability.

According to Tian’s capstone project report, this interactive web app could help “tell visual stories about pollinator habitat protection in Madison, query land suitability levels for pollinator habitats of each census block within the City, and customize suitability evaluation model[s] by changing evaluation factors or factors’ significant indexes.”

Exploring the possible use of this web application is one of the crucial first steps the PPWG is taking towards certifying Madison as a Bee City. The web application could satisfy several requirements for the certification, and according to Tian’s timeline the finished product should be available for the PPWG’s use around late July or early August.

Once this web application is available and the city decides to use it, the PPWG and the city of Madison will be able to begin enacting their short-term goals (goals that can be completed in one year). These goals include banning and regulating neonicotinoids, a pesticide harmful to pollinators, expanding current beekeeping ordinances and reviewing current city planting lists.

Until then the PPWG will be focused mainly on aiding Tian in acquiring the data needed to complete his project. In the meantime, the PPWG and the city of Madison encourage residents to exercise pollinator awareness when planting and preparing their yards for spring-time.

As Clarke said on his website, “There are a lot of urban beekeepers in Madison, and we are a very pro-bee town. Madison has a very strong local food movement, and the bees help that local food system by providing pollination and great tasting honey.”

For Madisonians, a positive impact on pollinators translates to a positive impact on Madison’s ecology. Every flower planted and every dandelion left to grow brings Madison closer to becoming a Bee City.