Something sweet is being cultivated in the skies over West Philadelphia.
Seven stories above a busy shopping center and the Mann Music amphitheater, a swarm of 1.5 million bees are taking up residence on the expansive, barren industrial rooftop of the Philadelphia Business & Technology Center (PBTC) at 51st Street and Parkside Avenue.
The thought may unnerve some, but the flying insects have been transplanted into the neighborhood to create a hyper-local crop -- honey.
"We’re essentially maintaining agricultural livestock here in a spot that would not be used for just about anything else," says beekeeper Don Shump.
Shump, a web developer turned apiarist who manages eight bee sites around Philadelphia, set up his western outpost three years ago after the PBTC offered him the open-air space. Since then, the bee population has grown from four hives to 20, producing hundreds of pounds of locally foraged honey.
"There are very few things, as an urbanite, that we can really grow as our own food and grow…in quantity," Shump said. "We’re producing hundreds of pounds of honey. I’m hoping for 1,000 pounds this year.”
The West Parkside bees, as they’re named, will travel as far as three miles to places like The Philadelphia Zoo and 30th Street Station for nectar and pollen. They bring the finds back to the hives and produce a honey unique to the area – with the help of an unsightly source.
"We have thousands of abandoned lots in the city and they’re blight for just about everyone else," he said. "That’s cultural forage for my bees. So all of these plots that have these weeds growing up, that no one’s really tending to. My bees go and hit it and the honey is just amazing."
Suburban areas that people may think will be good spots for starting colonies, in actuality, are less desirable for a lack of biodiversity, according to Shump.
The honey crop, which is harvested a few times a year, is split between Shump’s company, The Philadelphia Bee Company, and the PBTC and then packaged in 8 oz. jars and labeled individually. The PBTC asks for donations for the honey. Shump sells through his website and at the Fair Foods Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market.
"I sold out of this year’s crop in September,” he said. "People asked me whether they could get a couple bottles for Christmas and I have to say sorry."
With demand high, Shump is setting his sights on expanding honey production, but he says it’s an uphill battle. A worldwide decline in the number of bees due to parasites and other, yet to be explained causes, is killing whole colonies.
“I’ve been trying to expand, but the losses we’ve been sustaining have been dreadful," he said. "I was hoping to pick up 60 new hives this year, but when I went to pick them up, I only got 12."
It was the bee decline and misconceptions about the insects that led Miller Parker and Marjorie Ogilvie Parker of the PBTC to bring the insects to the roof of their converted industrial building.
"What we found as we talked to our friends and neighbors was there was very little knowledge about honey bees," Miller Parker said. "They equated everything to a wasp or something that will sting you that are dangerous."
The trio hope to work with local schools to bring in kids and teach them about the insects in an effort to get them interested in bees and the environment. They’d also like to strengthen the urban bee population, but before more bees can be brought in, they need more food.
Working with the local politicans and horticultural society, the Parkers and Shump hope to convince the city to plant wildflowers on vacant lots around the hives in West Philadelphia.
"We’ve got to get more flowers, more milkweed so that they have enough pollen, enough nectar to do what they need to do," Marjorie Ogilvie Parker said.
Making that a reality, would help Shump achieve his goal of getting bees in every part of the city.
"When you talk about a green city, this is what you aim for," he said of the colonies. "All these trees we’re planting, you need them to be pollinated and the bees will do that."