Sweet Honey in the Block

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 still 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 honeybee, 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. They 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.

New York city 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 Meetup, a moribund nonstarter for most of the past few years, now includes 192 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.

At press time, more than a dozen people had already volunteered to help out with John Howe’s last honey harvest of the season. They clamber up to a view of the Brooklyn skyline, gently pry honeycombs out of a trio of hives, brush any lingering bees off the combs, ease their way down a narrow ladder, cluster into a sticky corner of Howe’s brownstone, and, if last year’s harvest was any indication, watch pound after pound of utterly local sweetness stream from Howe’s honey extractor.

New York beekeepers can be a tight-lipped bunch in a city where beekeeping is a crime and one disgruntled neighbor’s call to 311 can undo years of hard work. For many years, Howe was the only Brooklyn beekeeper he knew. Now, he says, the borough is experiencing a “groundswell” of interest and engagement, and Howe feels proud to speak up about his hard-earned knowledge.

“I had fantasies about beekeeping when I retired to the country, but about 10 years have gone by and I still haven’t retired to the country,” says Howe. “Eventually, I just said ‘Hey, honeybees in New York? Why not?’…I was a one man operation for a while and I mostly taught myself, and I still don’t consider myself a perfect beekeeper, but I do get enough honey to sell.”

Indeed, he has an eager market for all the honey he can bottle for local outlets like Habana Outpost and Greene Grape Provisions. “I like to sell [my honey] myself,” he says. “I like talking to people about bees. I feel a sense of mission. I like to sit there at the table and gab…I like the cachet of being an urban beekeeper and I figure if I get caught and that’s the end of it, I’ve had a good life. And if it’s over it’s over. I’d rather be loquacious than secretive, so I brazenly break the law. I don’t see any reason to be obfuscatious.”

A Williamsburg restaurant owner and beginning beekeeper (who wished to remain anonymous for liability reasons) explained, “I’m someone who works with food all the time and thinks about food all the time, but I do a lot of things that aren’t necessarily FDA approved. People have been dealing with food in these ways for hundreds of years, ways that aren’t inspectable…. we know the names of the people we buy our meat from, and we know how to work with it…. I’d stick a fork into a leg of beef from one of our farmers any time. I wouldn’t do that to a piece of meat just because it was FDA approved. It’s the same with bees. There is no health issue, as far as I’m concerned. You just keep your head down if you need to, and go about your business.”

Says Andrew Coté, “I’m usually a very law-abiding person, but aren’t ridiculous laws like [New York’s] kind of meant to be broken? Common sense tells us that honeybees 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, OK, maybe that stupid law.”

New York’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 eight 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 a pound for New York 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. honeybees, a population already decimated by invasive mites and gastrointestinal disease in the 1980s. No one knows what causes colony collapse—worker bees simply 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 United States) 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 honeybee, which stings mostly in response to direct disturbance (e.g., kicking the hive, knocking it over, extracting honey) and dies instantly upon stinging. David Graves remarks, “they send honeybees through the U.S. mail. Just regular mail. And they’re labeled ‘gentle honeybees.’ They wouldn’t do that with a rattlesnake, with anything that was truly dangerous or unpredictable…A foraging honeybee has lost its desire to sting. A lot of the nastiness has been bred out of them [through centuries of domestication].”

Beekeeping allows New Yorkers with agrarian aspirations the chance to grow food without 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. Living together in colonies of 10,000 or more, they’re some of the world’s first city dwellers—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 (beekeeper71@gmail.com) seeks rooftops or other areas that could accommodate hives. Those with cantankerous neighbors can support Brooklyn’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 Brooklynites deserve more local honey.

Saskia Cornes is still trying to figure out a way to convince her co-op board of beekeeping’s charms.

Quietly abuzz. Inconspicuous urban apiaries offer sticky-sweet rewards.