The last time David Nicholson appeared in the Star Tribune, he didn't reveal his face or last name. Nicholson was trying to stay under the radar because he was engaged in an illegal activity: harboring honeybees.

But now that Minneapolis has ended its decades-long bee ban, stealth beekeepers are emerging from the shadows to talk up their hobby.

"I find bees absolutely fascinating," said Nicholson. He and his partner, Betsy Ranum, a bee research assistant at the University of Minnesota, have been keeping them in their south Minneapolis back yard for the past three years. "It's so pleasant to sit there," Nicholson said. "The bees are busy, and it smells so nice around the hive."

The couple's bees weren't a secret in the neighborhood. They talked to their nearest neighbors in advance, and one even helped build their "flyway barrier" -- a tarp enclosure designed to direct the bees' flight from the hive upward, out of humans' way. Nicholson said the bees don't bother anyone, adding: "If we hadn't told people, they wouldn't know."

Beekeeping, which also is allowed in St. Paul (with a permit) and in many Twin Cities suburbs, is on the rise, part of the urban agriculture movement. More city dwellers are replacing their turf grass with vegetable plots and adding back-yard chicken coops and apiaries, or beehives. The Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Association boasts about 300 members, up from 250 a few years ago, said president Dan Malmgren.

There's added buzz around bees because there's a sense of urgency; many fear they're an endangered species.

That's relevant to anyone who eats.

"We need bees to pollinate our plants," said Bob Sitko, a certified master beekeeper who teaches classes at Century College in White Bear Lake. "If all bees disappeared today, we wouldn't have watermelons, blueberries. ... They're responsible for about one-third of the food supply."

Better produce

For gardeners, bees are like a natural stimulus package. Gary Rettke of Blaine reports greater growing success since Malmgren, his son-in-law, started keeping some of his hives on Rettke's property several years ago.

"The bees have helped the garden," Rettke said. "Where I notice it most is where I didn't expect to see it -- the sweet corn." Before the bees arrived, Rettke experienced "off years," with ears missing rows and kernels. "But since the bees have been around, there's been uniformity," he said. His apple yields, which used to be inconsistent, are now bountiful every year.

"Bees do a lot to encourage plant growth, fruit production and the ecosystem," said Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, which is why he supported making beekeeping legal - with a permit. (To get one, a beekeeper on a typical city lot must show consent from all abutting property owners, plus 80 percent of owners within 100 feet of the property.) There was no organized opposition to allowing bees in Minneapolis, Gordon said. "The public hearing [in April] was quite one-sided."

Some city residents are uneasy, however, about having bees as neighbors. "I was really upset initially," said Elena Jass, who lives two doors down from Nicholson and Ranum. "I have sort of a bee phobia, and I was worried about swarms of bees all over, stinging the children." Bees sometimes drink at her rain barrel and kiddie pool, but her children, now 5 and 9, have not been stung. "It hasn't been an issue at all," she said.

Honeybees aren't aggressive, but they are protective of their hives, Sitko said. "If you throw a rock at a hive and run away, they'll chase you and sting you. But you can brush them aside from a flower, and they'll just go to another one."

The aggressive bees that occasionally attack and make headlines are generally African bees, Malmgren said. They can't survive Minnesota winters and are rarely found north of Texas or Oklahoma.

And if you've ever been bothered -- or stung -- by bees at a picnic, they probably weren't bees, said University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak. "Bees don't go to picnics; they don't eat meat. They eat flowers." Wasps, which eat other insects, are the ones that tend to crash human parties, she said. "Bees are quite gentle."

Bee behavior

Understanding bee behavior is especially important when keeping bees in a densely populated area. Urban beekeepers try to prevent swarming -- a colony of bees that have left the hive and are searching for a new one -- by watching carefully for signs of overcrowding.

"If bees were in a rural area, swarming wouldn't be a big deal," Nicholson said. "It's a natural behavior that helps the vitality of the hive. But it's not cool to have a swarm on your neighbor's deck."

If you do see a swarm of bees, there's no need to panic, according to beekeepers. "Swarms look a lot scarier than they are," Malmgren said.

"They don't have a hive to defend," Nicholson said. "All they're interested in doing is finding a new spot."

Stings are an occupational hazard for beekeepers, however, because their work requires disturbing the hive.

"I've been stung," said Sitko. "It hurts like heck."

Bee stings can be serious and even deadly for the small percentage of people who are allergic to the venom and go into anaphylactic shock. But localized pain and swelling is a normal, nonallergic reaction. Some beekeepers even believe the venom has beneficial side effects. "Beekeepers don't get arthritis," Sitko claimed. He also credits his bees with curing his hayfever. He took up the hobby more than 30 years ago after hearing that a daily spoonful of raw, local honey would ease his symptoms. So he got some bees and gave it a try. Within several years, his hay fever had vanished, he said. Now he sells his honey from his Stillwater home, "to raise a little money for my hunting and fishing trips."

Honey is a nice perk of living near beekeepers, said Jass, who gets jars from Nicholson and Ranum. "It's not like any other honey I've ever had."

Malmgren, however, couldn't care less about eating his honey. He gives it all away. "I just find the hobby intriguing," he said.

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784