To bee or not to bee: Urban Bees is all the buzz in South Korea
Urban Bees Seoul is campaigning to raise awareness of the benefits the insects can bring to the environment
By Ko Dong-hwan
Urban Bees Seoul CEO Park Jin was the only person in South Korea who took action after bees were decimated in 2010 when the central government forced beekeepers to destroy hives after a nationwide sacbrood virus outbreak. Almost 90 per cent of the country’s bee population was wiped out.
After three years, Park did not see any sign of recovery in bee numbers. That’s when the then office worker quit his job and started urban beekeeping from scratch in Seoul. The practice was almost unheard of then.
Urban Bees Seoul has now become the industry’s most influential player.
“When the bees were killed in 2010, it posed a threat of extinction to not just the species but also other wildlife species they pollinate, like acacia, chestnut, sunflower and other related flowers we don’t know of,” Park told The Korea Times. He said the country had neglected to discover the consequences of the mass killing because it considered the beekeeping industry not economically beneficial.
“If it was a Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak or other grievous disease fiasco that had struck the nation, the government would have launched a prompt investigation in a coordinated fashion,” Park said. “But the bee farming industry wasn’t worth the cost of such efforts, as seen in the 2010 incident. I wanted to ventilate such an idea that disregards the insects’ ecological importance. So I started beekeeping in the city, where I could inform people faster that the bees are disappearing. It was more like campaigning than running a business.”
For the restless pioneer, 35, the most difficult challenge is changing people’s perception that bees are dangerous. While many question the necessity of urban bee farming, his job is to keep persuading people the mission is driven by an ecological challenge that will benefit cities with fruitful outcomes ― by stimulating more pollination, enabling better fertilisation and production of seeds, resulting in more crops.
Another hurdle in urban beekeeping is finding the right location for hives. For a colony to settle, the site should not have people, humidity or places that produce artificial sweet smells. Bees can be attracted to sugar or chocolate factories, which does not help with pollination.
Despite the difficulty, Park has managed to set up 37 “farms” across Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, with 20 in the city. Each location has up to five wooden hives, each colony breeding from 20,000 to 60,000 bees. The latest is on the roof of coffee brewer-retailer Terra Rosa Cafe in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. It was set up in late April.
All colony locations were offered by companies that had hoped for better use of unoccupied space, mostly roofs. In return, Park gives 10 per cent of the honey produced to the companies. He sells the rest on the Urban Bees Seoul website (urbanbeesseoul.com) and at Ape Seoul, a coffee shop he jointly opened with a coffee shop entrepreneur-urban bee farmer in Hyehwa-dong in Jongno-gu, Seoul.
Park plans to educate people on urban beekeeping and wants to see about 100,000 involved. There now are about 1,000 urban beekeepers nationwide, he believes. He was teaching 10 aspiring farmers as of late April. He wants to appoint them as full-time overseers for Urban Bees Seoul’s colonies.
“These people simply love the environment and showed interest in bee farming as a new hobby or method of livelihood after moving to rural regions,” Park said. “If each of them was given about five colonies to manage and sell honey produced from the hives, they altogether could generate revenue of about 15 million won ($14,000). It can be used to hitch the beekeepers ― who are paid about 900,000 won a month now ― to more stable, technical and better-paying jobs related to bee farming.”
Seongdong-gu Office in Seoul, where Urban Bees Seoul office is in Seongsu-dong, found the company’s mission worthy and has been financially supporting it.
Park realises his company alone cannot raise 100,000 urban bee farmers. So he teaches other startups interested in the business through technical partnerships. His first partner is Bee-come Friends in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province, which opened for business in March.
“Instead of us dominating a small pie, I would prefer creating a much bigger pie with many other partners,” Park said.
Urban beekeeping has a strong sense of “social corporate-ness” as those with stakes in the business often strive to employ people from vulnerable social groups. That’s what Park saw when he benchmarked Denmark’s Bybi and Tokyo’s non-government organisation The Ginza Honey Bee Project, also known as Ginpachi. He noted the Danish firm hired socially disadvantaged people to boost their social roles. He also recognized Ginpachi’s well-organised business, based on a wide network across Ginza in central Tokyo, sales of limited-edition honey products and contribution to building “bee forests” of plants the insects are attracted to.
“Our business campaigns on three mottos,” Park said. “’My sweet life,’ because urban beekeeping teaches one to live a more humble life; ‘my sweet city,’ because honey jars labeled with different cities speak of urban bee farming’s potential distribution network nationwide, and finally ‘my sweet earth,’ because honey bees’ favourite environments are close to ecologically clean places.”
Park is striving to expand his company’s influence ― stressing beekeeping’s ecological importance ― by working with the fire emergency service. While not having signed an official partnership yet, Urban Bees Seoul has proposed offering advice about wasp hive removals, a job that occupies a considerable amount of firefighters’ time.
“The lifespan of wasps begins in spring, when wasp queens lay eggs, and it ends after a year,” Park said. “Honey bees go through dormancy in winter and then wake up, living a cycle of years.” Park indicated that this meant the wasp population could be reduced by catching wasp queens in spring to prevent them from laying eggs.
“If we teach firefighters about it and help them curb wasps, the emergency workers will be less likely to be dispatched for wasp hunting and instead concentrate more on the real emergencies,” Park said. “It will also help the honey bee population grow better.”