Show Me the Honey

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Adapted from EAT THE CITY: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York Copyright © 2012 by Robin Shulman. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.

Sundays in the summer, Andrew Coté likes to hive hop, collecting honey. Sometimes he takes the subway from his apartment on the Lower East Side, his smoker and his bag of hive tools banging against his thigh as he walks. But mostly he drives a white Toyota Tundra pickup abuzz with bees hovering over the truck bed, where their honey has been stashed. They will travel with the truck for hours, from one borough to another, seeking to reclaim what is theirs in a scene out of an urban Winnie-the-Pooh.

Andrew curses his way through traffic, flips through a giant ring for keys to the next rooftop hive building and parks wherever he can find a space. Much of city beekeeping is vertical work. Up a narrow stairway in the dingy darkness, down six flights from rooftop hives on Second Avenue, balancing heavy, oozing frames of honey.

Back outside, truck full of honey, when someone pauses and stares at the buzzing bees still lingering above the truck, Andrew says, “We’re out of here,” and guns the motor. When a cruiser slows down and a cop yells out the window, “Is that honey?” Andrew cheerfully calls, “Legal since April 2010! Want to try?”

While hobbyist beekeepers usually maintain just a hive or two, Andrew practices a particularly muscular brand of urban beekeeping, managing 40 hives on rooftops, terraces and balconies, and in yards and gardens in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. A fourth-generation beekeeper, Andrew is a kind of honey lord with a petty honey fiefdom, supervising a network of hundreds of novices he has taught and mentored. He sells boxlike hives he makes himself, along with packages of bees as starter kits.

To hear Andrew tell it, honeymaking is a hustle. It’s nothing like producing wine or cheese, where you mix careful quantities of ingredients together, monitor temperatures and chemical processes, and tend a thing while it becomes something else. In beekeeping, your job is observation, fraud and theft. You set up conditions (a good clean hive, water, a supply of nearby flowers) so the bees feel equipped to plan for the future. Sooner or later, your bees will fly forth and suck nectar from flowers, spit in enzymes that thicken and preserve it, and construct cells of wax in which to store it as food for the long winter. Driven by instinct that looks like artisanal zeal, they will use their tiny wings as fans to cool the wax in summer and warm it in fall. Many die. You, on the other hand, just pry open the lid of the hive, which the bees, perhaps foreseeing such crimes, have sealed shut with a sappy glue they extract from plants. You knock out the bees with a dose of smoke and seize their waxen provisions. And then you’re out, with nary a sting. You’ve got honey.

In cities, beekeeping is more complicated. You’ve got to find a place to install a hive—perhaps some unused roof or community garden—and lobby co-op boards and garden members to approve. You’ve got to make arrangements for access. You’ve got to carry around heavy protective clothing to keep from getting stung—many times—as a single bee stinging emits a scent that alerts other bees to join the attack.

In a crowded city, you have to work especially hard to prevent a swarm, a hive reproduction technique whereby half the bees in a colony fly off to find a new home and cluster for hours or maybe days in some tree—or, in the case of New York, one of many tree-like structures, such as a traffic light or a street sign in front of the Bulgari jewelry store on Fifth Avenue. It looks like the stuff of horror films: a ball of 30,000 bees making a noise like a buzz saw. People get scared. Nearby businesses can’t operate, and crowds gather to stare. Andrew and other beekeepers set up a swarm hotline. He will grab his beekeeping gear and rush over. Like a hooded superhero on a utility ladder, he will trap the swarm and spirit the bees away to a new hive.

New York City outlawed beekeeping in 1999, and for a decade afterward, a clandestine apiarist culture survived despite the risk of a $2,000 fine for an illicit hive. People put up screens and walls and grew foliage to hide the hives in their gardens. On rooftops, they painted hives gray to look like air conditioning units, or red, like chimneys. After removing frames of honey, they wrapped them in garbage bags before carrying them, quietly buzzing, into public view. They hosted underground honey tastings and sold their wares in boutique groceries. At most, there were a few dozen beekeepers in the city, and the hobby seemed to attract lone eccentrics, such as a Brooklyn drag performer who sold honey under his female alias, and a man in the Bronx who lived in a rectory and had learned beekeeping from a Trappist monk. Finally when beekeeping became legal again in 2010, new beekeepers emerged in force.

Often they’re in it for the honey. City honey is an edible record of available nectar in the urban landscape, and a discerning palate can see and taste the distinctive flavors of different neighborhoods. A complex and nuanced South Bronx honey comes from bees feasting on flora at the botanical garden. An East Village honey, pale with a minty taste from bees working the linden trees, has hints of apple, peach and rose, from the many community gardens.

Some newer beekeepers have been moved to the hobby by tales of colony collapse disorder. A sense of crisis in beekeeping peaked just as New York City legalized the practice. Interest soared.

Urban beekeepers all over the country do what Andrew does: They are swarm wranglers, bee dealers, hive inspectors, club leaders, beekeeping teachers, honey sellers. But most major cities that allow beekeeping have a long-standing institution with a stable community to manage problems. In Chicago, a nonprofit cooperative contracts with City Hall to manage the hives on its roof. In San Francisco and Seattle, volunteer organizations have collected swarms for decades. But in New York, all this is new, and Andrew is often the one to educate, mediate and trap wayward bees. These days, Andrew often works with a pack of acolytes in tow, a microphone clipped to his T-shirt and a lens trained on his face.

Andrew’s own group for hobbyist beekeepers, the New York City Beekeepers Association, grew to 300 members in just a few years following legalization. He alone trained 320 people in two years, while a competing beekeeping group trained another 400. But bees are wild creatures that cannot be tamed, and that can create unforeseen problems—interpersonal problems that require diplomacy not generally associated with keepers of honeybees. Problems that are, so to speak, sticky.

At 39 years old, Andrew is fit, strong and tightly strung. He’s classically handsome enough that a modeling scout signed him up while he was working at his market honey stand, and he ended up starring in a Goldman Sachs ad. He has a flirtatious sparkle in his eye, a quick grin, a quicker wit, a handy touch, a low tolerance for error and moods that shift as quickly and totally as a sudden storm. He has worked as a community college professor of English but also spent time in Iraq. He doesn’t like to talk about what he did there, but he came back in 2006 with post-traumatic stress disorder and Monday-afternoon appointments with a shrink. Now he seems to lack the self-corrective feature that makes human interaction bearable. He can be incredibly dedicated: When a bus hit his cargo van last spring while he was delivering bees, the bloodied Andrew, covered in broken glass and lying on a gurney by an ambulance, phoned other beekeepers to come pick up their packages. Yet he also punches people when he’s mad. He tears up when he’s sad. He writes vengeful e-mails to strangers. Fellow beekeeper David Selig says, “He’s like an angry bee.”

“POP the smoker!” yells Andrew to his disciples on a rooftop filled with wood planter boxes of basil, peppers, cardoons, chrysanthemums and cleomes, and several white, gray, red or yellow hives. The young beekeepers-in-training scramble to burn newspaper to produce smoke that causes bees to react as though under attack, and to fortify themselves by consuming stores of honey, rather than stinging interlopers. The apprentices work like surgical assistants, proffering each instrument as Andrew requests it. “Hive tool!” he says, and an arm stretches forth with the tool. “Paper towel!” he says, and the towel is there. Andrew hunkers down in front of what look like filing cabinets of bees, which is essentially what the hives are. They consist of stacked wooden boxes: a brood box at the base, where the queen lays her eggs, and honey boxes, or supers, above, which the workers pack with honeycomb. The boxes are filled with frames, like hanging file folders, which themselves are made up of flat waxen sheets double-embossed with hexagonal patterns on both sides, which the bees build up with wax and fill with honey. It’s easy to lift out a full frame of honey and exchange it for an empty one for the bees to work next. The longer you spend working in their hive, the angrier they get.

Andrew pries the lid off of one box to reveal the bee society within. A healthy hive can sustain 40,000 to 80,000 bees with many different vocations. The queen lays up to 2,000 eggs a day. Drones are the only males in the hive, and their sole function is to mate with the queen. Their sisters, the worker bees, forage for water, nectar and pollen, and also act as guards and masons and nurses and undertakers and cooks. A forager flies up to two miles to extract nectar and pollen from flowers. Back at the hive, she passes it to the mouths of her fellow workers, who remove most of the water, transform sucrose into glucose and fructose and inject a preservative enzyme. The bees deposit this new substance in a cell of honeycomb. When the cell is full, they cap it with wax—the bees’ version of canning for the winter, since honey is bee food when no flower blooms.

Thrifty bees often produce more honey than they need to survive, and a good beekeeper can encourage them to overproduce very profitably. “Like human beings, they work themselves literally to death to gather wealth they have no need for,” noted a Brooklyn Heights beekeeper of the 1960s, who worked at a Wall Street firm.

Andrew judges his hives not only by their productivity but also by their prettiness. Of his many hives, Andrew’s favorites are located beside the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan on the roof of the Bridge Café, the oldest wood-frame building in the city and the longest constantly running tavern (since 1794). “Under the Brooklyn Bridge! In the shadow of the Municipal Building!” Andrew will gloat, as he reaches barehanded into one of the six hives, bees stinging up and down his arms. “Ouch!” he says, grimacing, but not slowing down.

His second-favorite hives are on top of a luxury apartment building at Second Avenue and 14th Street, where the bees zoom down toward bodegas and traffic on Second Avenue. Maybe they head east to the clover flowers of Tompkins Square Park, where the blossoms are muddled by the sleeping bodies of spiky-haired kids. Or perhaps they fly south to the flowers of Chinatown’s window gardens, steeped in the scent of the fish market. This is the strange fact of urban beekeeping: You don’t know exactly where your honey comes from.

One of Andrew’s assistants today, Cecilia Lee, an NYU student from Argentina, has been excused from duty because she ignored Andrew’s e-mailed instructions to wear a long-sleeved shirt and full-length pants, and showed up for honey harvesting wearing a wild turkey feather in her long hair, a sleeveless shirt and a short tulle skirt, exposing arms and legs most stingable. She says she wants to someday grow all her own food and live off the grid. Today, however, she just goes to fetch extra garbage bags.

“It’s a strong queen,” Andrew says now, admiring the hive. “Good proximity to the nectar source.” He pulls up frame after frame bursting with honey. In some frames, the honey is dark; in some it’s light, depending on what combination of flowers the bees visited.

If the harvest is good, Andrew might find the comb on every frame covered in neat caps of wax, a full 40 pounds in every box of maybe six hives in a row, totaling 240 pounds of honey. “Gorgeous!” he will say, grinning at the brilliance of his bees and all but doing a tap dance. At a troubled hive, he might pull out only 10 pounds of honey, and he’ll slam the frames back into place and turn away. “But you’re training people,” someone will say encouragingly. “I’ll just tell the bank that,” Andrew will reply darkly. Forty pounds of city-made honey, a respectable biannual harvest from one hive, is worth $1,600 at market. Andrew, who is single and has no kids, does have mortgages to pay—on his studio apartment in the Lower East Side and also on two properties in Connecticut—and he toys with the idea of buying a building in Brooklyn to fix up. Andrew needs honey.

Here on the roof, the harvest is neither thrilling nor deplorable. Only two hives have honey, but they hold a good 40 pounds per. Andrew tries to pull the full frames of honey out quickly, but he’s spent too much time with his inspections and now the bees know what’s coming. The noise they make all together sounds like a low-temperature sizzle.

After advance and retreat for more than an hour, Andrew and the girls quickly wrap the honey frames in garbage bags. They pack all the equipment, drop the wax, lid the hives, kill the smoke. Andrew and an assistant each heave to their shoulders a sticky, plastic-wrapped 40-pound super, and we all clomp downstairs. “Shhh!” Andrew says. He doesn’t want to annoy the neighbors and lose roof access.

Back on the street, the truck is still buzzing from the last stop, and a man slows and stares in disgust. “Are those bees?” he asks. Andrew jumps into the driver’s seat to make a break for it before the man has time to call the city’s 311 hotline and complain. Though keeping bees is legal, there’s no need to attract official interest.

With three hive stops, carrying hive tools and supers up and down stairs and fighting angry bees for their honey wealth in the blazing heat, the day has been exhausting, stressful and only moderately productive. “You can see why I’m irritated when people at the market complain about the price of honey,” Andrew says.

As he drives home, Andrew outlines his biography. He’s a kind of renaissance man, who got the idea of keeping city hives while working as an assistant professor of English at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He speaks a half dozen languages, studied Japanese lit, got a Fulbright in Moldova and worked as a writer in India—but came back to his hometown of Norwalk when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. There, he started Silvermine Apiary, which sells wholesale honey to supermarkets. He also began a PhD at Yale in Middle East studies, and raised funds for the nonprofit Bees Without Borders he and his father launched in order to teach beekeeping in impoverished countries. Andrew eventually abandoned his PhD—“I was more interested in spending time with my father and the bees.”

During a swarm, half the bees in a healthy hive fortify themselves with honey and fly off with the queen in search of a new home. It is a perfectly normal method of hive reproduction, and not particularly dangerous—swarming bees are actually at their most docile.

The trouble is that while swarming bees wait to identify a new home, they will hover in a cluster for hours or even days. They want to be in a tree branch about 30 feet high—but in a city, they will settle for anything roughly that height. Tens of thousands of bees might attach to a traffic light. Once Andrew flagged down a Heineken truck and paid the driver $50 to let him clamber onto the roof to reach bees. Storeowners and street-corner observers emerged to offer the kind of advice they would give to someone parallel parking. “You gotta get higher!” “You gotta grab the bees with a plastic bag!”

When the ban was lifted, Andrew had to teach his basic beekeeping class three times over to meet demand. Honey lust consumed the unlikeliest people. Rania Abu-Eid, a lingerie designer at Victoria’s Secret, expected her honey to be light and yellow. “But it actually came out all dark and complex, which is actually more like me.” Maxine Friedman, a 58-year-old electrical estimator in sensible lace-up shoes, ordered bees on a whim. “I thought it was a good idea, but when I saw the live insects, I thought, ‘Holy shit.’ ” Vivian Wang, a lawyer, installed three hives on the roof of her 12-story office building and hung a beekeeping jacket and veil inside her office door. “What case are you billing to?” her boss would joke, as she trooped up to the roof in her beekeeping suit.

More swarms appeared as more amateurs kept bees. One attached to a tree outside a discount clothing store in Bed-Stuy. Wearing a T-shirt and no special protection, Andrew stood in his truck bed, at eye level with a quivering multi-organism two-foot cone of bees dangling body-to-body. Calm, silent, before a gathering crowd and the crackle of police radios, he worked methodically with two other beekeepers to spray the insects with sticky sugar water to impede their movement, to the bewilderment of onlookers—“It’s poison!” some of them yelled. Then he donned a protective hood, lifted a plastic garbage bin toward the bees, and shook the branch into the dark receptacle.

“Oh, shit, son,” said one man, as thousands of bees dropped into the bin and hewed to the sides of the plastic, coating it with their bodies, making a lining of living bees. And then, with the application of a lid, the bee problem was gone.

As a siren shrieked from a departing squad car, Andrew shook the hand of the lead police officer and drove away, tens of thousands of bees the richer.


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