You know that Supremes song “Up the Ladder to the Roof”? Last week, at the top of the Baltimore Convention Center, those lyrics weren’t just a wistful song of love but literal directions.

I traveled up a narrow inner staircase on the Pratt Street tourism complex’s highest floor, across the roof to another set of stairs, and then climbed not one but two ladders to my destination, where a guy in a big helmet carefully handled a bee-covered screen.

“I don’t usually wear the helmet,” explained Solomon Jeong, an urban beekeeper for Alvéole, a company that oversees hives across Europe, Canada and 22 cities in the United States, including about 100 in Washington, D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia. “But it’s cloudy today. When it’s sunny, the bees are happy.”

Trust me: You want the bees to be happy. I visited Jeong and his hive during last week’s National Pollinator Week, which focuses on the importance of butterflies, bees and other pollinating birds and insects that literally make the food we eat and our environment possible. Alvéole and other companies encourage people to create hives in cities to help our odds. According to the National Honey Board, there were more than 100,000 American beekeepers as of 2021.

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“I’m super excited to spread the gospel of bees and beekeeping,” said James Boicourt, a beekeeper in Federal Hill and the founder of Charm City Meadworks, whose namesake product is an alcoholic beverage made from honey.

Hives are stored atop the Baltimore Convention Center. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Solomon Jeong uses smoke to distract the bees as he checks on their honey output. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

In their approximately 28 days on Earth (if they’re not wintering), bees work hard to keep their queen alive, pollinate local fruits and flowers and produce about half a teaspoon of honey — less than you probably use in your tea. But bees “have a symbiotic relationship with the ecosystem,” said Niya Weedon, who maintains a cool, bee-centric TikTok and worked locally as a beekeeper for Alvéole until this spring, when she relocated to Seattle, where she still works for the company. “All bees are important, and honeybees are like the ambassadors for all bees.”

And those hives themselves are visual ambassadors for the cause, said Susan Comfort, Alvéole’s beekeeping manager, who I’ve known since we were fifth grade classmates and Girl Scouts at Leith Walk Elementary. “It’s about engagement. If you have one hive and 1,000 people working in that building [the hive is on top of], they now know about the bees and why.”

“We’re super excited to see this, to have an impact on the environment,” said Donna Lankford, tenant service coordinator of Hertz Investment Group, a national corporate real estate firm that has hives on one of its Baltimore buildings.

The approximately 50,000 bees that arrived last year to the Baltimore Convention Center translate into products the venue can use in its catering and for branded honey given as gifts to potential clients who might bring their organizations to Baltimore. It’s “a combination of sustainability and social responsibility,” said Mack Campbell, the BCC’s executive director. It’s a part of the facility’s larger environmentally friendly efforts, such as making buffet units out of used palettes or a food-diversion program that distributes resources to food banks.

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Alvéole installs and cares for hives with the purpose of encouraging sustainability and pollination education in all parts of the community. This spring, I watched Comfort lead a group of students from the Baltimore Design School through the pollination garden across the road from Charm City Meadworks on Biddle Street. Later, Jeong held a class on beeswax candle making. (My kid and I made one, which is still in our living room candle holder.)

You may have heard about local honey, which is literally raw honey produced in a specific location that is said to be good for allergies and “tastes different than other honeys,” Boicourt said. That’s all well and good, but actually creating a hive in a city takes planning. He and Jeong said urban hives are usually on roofs or in backyards.

“You have to be conscious of the neighbors,” said Boicourt, whose hive members swarmed around his alley for a little bit when they first moved in, which is common. “Bees thrive in the city, because there’s less competition [with other pollinators] for forage, and there are a lot of flowers, trees, shrubs and window boxes,” Boicourt said.

He told me a hilarious story of picking up a delivery at a city post office that was not enthusiastically received. “Nobody wanted to go near them,” he said. “The staff was like, ‘Are those your bees? They’re over there.’”

Columnist Leslie Gray Streeter visits the bees on top of the convention center. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

There are many ways into beekeeping. Weedon and Jeong previously worked in other do-gooding spaces. She had planned to join the Peace Corps, while he had a job in environmentally sustainable development. Personally, I’d rather enjoy the bees from afar, but for those interested in exploring beekeeping, there are resources such as BUMBA (The Bowie-Upper Marlboro Beekeepers Association) and some schools, such as the University of Maryland, offer beekeeping programs.

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Besides the environmental benefits, beekeeping is an opportunity to work with your hands and do something important, Jeong said as his buzzing associates flew around. Which reminds me of another classic song, this one by The Drifters, about how “right smack dab in the middle of town” there’s a trouble-proof paradise up on the roof that just might save the world.

And the idea of that made it worth the climb.