Despite Bans, City Rooftops Become Hives of Activity

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Parisians covet the honey of their urban terroir, giving the city’s bees prime real estate in the ritzy neighborhoods around the Opéra and Jardin de Luxemborg. London’s bees were recently awarded best in show—their honey came out top in England’s National Honey competition. Stateside, Bay Area bees give San Franciscans one more reason to feel superior to New Yorkers. Even Chicago, hell, even Dallas has bees on top of municipal buildings, including, in Chicago’s case, City Hall.

But in New York, bees are reprobate and illegal. They appear in the City Health Code’s Section 161.01, along with an enormous list of animals “naturally inclined to do harm or capable of inflicting harm,” lumped in with the truly ferocious/impractical—polar bear, cougar, alligator, whale—and a menagerie of the truly obscure. Actively encouraged by almost every other self-respecting cultural capital, the common honey bee, according to Health Department logic, must be banished along with binturongs, sea kraits, coatimundis, numbats and zorilles. Whatever these other animals are, I bet they don’t pollinate much or produce any honey.

Intrepid New Yorkers, however, are finding local honey too sweet an allure, and are willing, in increasing numbers, to break the law, risking a $2,000 fine and, in extreme cases, extermination of their beloved but illicit bees. Invested in local food movements, concerned by colony collapse disorder, looking for a spiritual connection to nature, or just extraordinarily sweet-toothed, beekeepers have quietly been popping up all around the city.
Manhattan beekeeping was, for many years, the exclusive domain of David Graves, a Massachusetts-based honeyman who discovered a bear-free environment for his hives in the city sky, and whose rooftop honey, labeled by neighborhood, has become a fixture at the Union Square Greenmarket.

Now Graves has some company: a semi-clandestine network of urban beekeepers has grown astronomically in the past year. The New York Beekeeping Meet-Up (which generally meets in Manhattan), was a moribund nonstarter for most of the past few years, but now includes over 150 members, under the wing of John Howe, a largely self-taught beekeeper in Fort Greene, and professional beekeepers like Andrew Coté, owner of Connecticut-based Silvermine Apiaries, who regularly lends his expertise to beginning and aspiring beekeepers, as well as the merely curious, in Manhattan.

A recent sunny Sunday brought about a dozen people out to the Green Oasis community garden on the Lower East Side for a routine inspection of the garden’s hives: tween community garden members pretending to look blasé, the facially pierced, some pre-gentrification hold-outs, and a few passers-by Coté had enticed over from his stand at the nearby Tompkins Square Greenmarket.

Coté, wearing no protective gear, stopped halfway through the hive inspection when a neighbor started to weed on the other side of the garden’s chain link fence. “One call to 311,” John Howe laughed nervously, “and it’s all over.”

Green Oasis recently came to the rescue of two much-loved hives that fell victim to such a 311 report. Keith Shore and his co-beekeeper, Adam Johnson, set up their hives in plain sight in Keith’s modest Lower East Side backyard, painted them a tidy baby blue and a tasteful gray, and dubbed them Mayflower and Graystoke. They got gleeful grins from many of the Chinese and Dominican immigrants living nearby, several of whom explained that they longed for the hives they’d left back home. Keith, Adam, and a pug named Snuggles kept their bees with great pleasure and without incident for just over a month, and already had several combs full of honey when a neighbor’s anonymous complaint led to legal action on the part of Keith’s landlord. Keith went in person to the building’s management company, but sweet talking and the promise of fresh, local honey went nowhere; the bees were evicted, and extermination was threatened if the bees weren’t gone within three days. Craigslist ads were posted, word was passed at Greenmarkets and listservs, and eventually a gardener from Green Oasis, Jan Werner, stepped up to offer the bees a foster home. In a pre-dawn mission involving a pheromone lure, a Volvo, a cardboard box, and some help from their friends, the pair of hives was reinstalled at Green Oasis. At press time, these bees were still insect refugees, safe for the moment, but still seeking a permanent, legal home in this anti-bee municipality.

“I’m usually a very law-abiding person, but aren’t ridiculous laws like this kind of meant to be broken?” says Andrew Coté. “Common sense tells us that honey bees like nectar and pollen. They’re not craving human flesh. There are so many advantages to keeping bees in the city and no real drawbacks aside from people’s irrational fear of bees. There is no downside…Well, okay, maybe that stupid law.”

Manhattan’s bees “work harder” than their country sistren, says David Graves, who keeps most of his hives in Becket, Massachusetts. “They’re up much earlier and they work longer hours. “In Becket, 5 o’clock is quitting time for the bees. But I’ve checked my Manhattan hives as late as 8 in the evening and still seen a lot of activity.” Bees would seem to make better New Yorkers (and better neighbors) than, say, teacup yorkies. Bees don’t bark, they don’t take up space in the elevator, they don’t need walking, and no one needs to follow them around clutching a plastic bag. More importantly they help pollinate rooftop and community gardens, and each hive can produce around 60 pounds of honey per harvest; depending on the keeper, this can be one to three times a year. With an average price of $10/pound for Manhattan honey, think what kind of fundraiser honey from a school rooftop or community garden could be. Many claim that local honey helps fight allergies, introducing pollen gently into the body as a treat, rather than a threat. And New York’s bees, which are more or less disease-free, do their part to combat colony collapse disorder, the mysterious epidemic that has led to the mass death of approximately one quarter of all U.S. honey bees, a population already decimated by invasive mites and gastrointestinal disease in the 1980s. No one knows what causes colony collapse—worker bees disappear, a most unnatural occurrence for these loyal insects. And because over one third of crops grown in the United States depend on bees for pollination, the bees’ mass suicide is disturbing for entomologists, farmers and eaters everywhere.

Rural farms aren’t the only ones hard hit by the absence of bees. “I met with an urban farmer who had to pollinate all of his fields by hand [because of the lack of pollinating bees in his neighborhood],” says Molly Norton, Food Justice Coordinator of the nonprofit Just Food, whose directive includes the fostering of food production within New York City limits. “If you’re trying to support urban agriculture, and if you see that urban food production can play a role in almost all of New York’s green initiatives, that’s clearly not sustainable. So many other cities use bees for economic development and job skills training for youth or for ex-convicts. These opportunities are being lost in New York.”

Just Food “would love to support well-managed beekeeping in New York City,” continues Norton. “We have a plan to make sure bees are being kept responsibly, but as a liable nonprofit, the law has to change before we can comfortably promote bees.”

So why is New York, unlike every other city with green aspirations, going after one of Earth’s most necessary and embattled insects? Visions of lawsuits dance in the heads of City Hall, which fears complaints and the (extremely remote) possibility of death in the case of New Yorkers with extreme allergies. Approximately 2 million Americans nationwide are severely allergic to bees—that’s 1 million less than the number of people severely allergic to peanuts, and no one is suggesting making peanuts illegal. Many more seem to believe themselves to be allergic. Moderate pain and swelling in the immediate area of a bee sting is not a good indicator of a life-threatening condition and, in fact, may be beneficial. People in Europe (and, increasingly, the U.S.) actually pay to get stung, sometimes hundreds of times, in order to relieve symptoms of arthritis and tendonitis, calling it “apitherapy.”

Of the complaints filed against city beekeepers, around five each year, almost none cited actually getting stung. Urbanites often confuse yellow jackets and wasps, the bane of many a picnic (territorial, attracted to sugar and meat, and able to sting more than once), or the dreaded Africanized killer bees (which can’t survive the winters this far north) for the more harmless, cuter and fuzzier honey bee, who stings mostly in response to direct disturbance (e.g., kicking the hive, knocking it over, extracting honey) and die instantly upon stinging. David Graves remarks, “They send honey bees through the U.S. mail. Just regular mail. And they’re labeled -gentle honey bees.’ They wouldn’t do that with a rattlesnake, with anything that was truly dangerous or unpredictable…. A foraging honey bee has lost its desire to sting. A lot of the nastiness has been bred out of them [through centuries of domestication].”

Peter Hoffman, owner of Savoy and Back Forty restaurants and host to some of David Graves’ hives, agrees. He started keeping bees in part to show that “as much as we think we’ve paved everything over…we don’t have to be the only beings that thrive here. Keeping bees is a reminder of what’s possible. I wanted to give my kids the opportunity to see what bees are all about, not to vilify them or be totally terrified of these things that might hurt you. I wanted them to see that if you move slowly, non-aggressively, and without fear, the world will treat you in kind.”

Says a Manhattan beekeeper who wished to remain anonymous out of concern for legal summons against her host garden, “Here we are, afraid of the species we’re most dependent on [for pollination of our food supply]. That’s the height of ignorance. [City hives are] great for bees, and great for us… No matter what’s going on in my life, I come up here [to the hives] and I feel great.”

Indeed beekeeping allows agrarian-aspiring New Yorkers the chance to grow food while avoiding what we normally think of as farming’s key requirement—land. Bees can gather nectar and pollen from many plant species we don”t necessarily recognize as having “flowers,” lindens and gingkos, for example, tough, sidewalk-busting street trees, and the flowers of grasses and weeds. Then they fly back to a home that takes up as little as two square feet, about the same amount of space as your average filing cabinet.

It makes sense that bees feel at home here. They’re some of the world’s first city dwellers, living together in colonies of 10,000 or more, cosmopolitan in their travels, with their own dance style, their own architectural forms, a regional cuisine, a sense of taste that reaches across species. The Big Apple (actually any apple) needs bees, and bees, it seems, need all the help they can get.

How to help: Beekeeper Andrew Coté, , seeks rooftops or other areas that could accommodate hives. Those with cantankerous neighbors can support Manhattan’s bees by buying local honey at the Greenmarket, or by planting bee-friendly New York natives: wild bergamot, smooth blue aster, thin-leafed sunflower and mountain mint are among the plants currently used by the American Museum of Natural History’s Bee Watch program. Or contact your city council representative and tell them New Yorkers deserve more local honey.

Photo credit: Stephen Munshin