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Sweet Spot

Now that beekeeping is legal in New York City, hundreds of prospective beekeepers are setting up hives

Email icon  nmm285@nyu.edu

Ten-year old Julian is scraping dried wax off a beehive screen with a metal hook, while his dad, Patrick Gannon, in jeans and a polo shirt, fiddles with the cornhusk smoker. When it comes time to lighting the dried cornhusk leaves, Julian rushes over to do the honors and sprays the bees with smoke. The smoke calms the bees and as their quick buzzing in and out of the hive slows, Patrick and Julian come around to the front of the hive to finish checking it. It is a sunny Saturday morning in City Island in the Bronx, and these two are hard at work like the bees they tend. Well, maybe not that hard at work.

After a few more minutes of cleaning beeswax off honeycomb frames and filling a container with syrup, a sugar water supplement for times of shorter nectar supply, Patrick sits on the shaded grass in his back yard.

“I call myself the bee whisperer,” said Gannon, chairman of the Department of Science Education at the Hofstra University School of Medicine. He reads the behavior of his bees, counts the bundles of pollen they bring into the hive and genuinely relaxes.
“I’m just reading the nature of the colony,” he said, as a breeze from the bay stirred the trees. “I can sit here and drink a beer, smoke a cigar.”

His backyard retreat has become more pleasurable, now that his hives are no longer illegal. In March, New York City legalized beekeeping. Before that, beekeeping had been subject to fines of up to $2,000. For the estimated 200 to 300 beekeepers in New York City, it is a long awaited change in response to the national trend to bring back honeybees, which have been disappearing in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the trend has sparked interest in the local food movement, with rooftop and backyard honey selling out at farmers’ markets and neighborhood shops. That beekeeping was happening was already an open secret in New York. Now that it’s legal, hundreds of prospective beekeepers are poised to set up hives for pleasure or profit.

“Many people clearly said that they had held off on starting hives due to the illegality,” said Jim Fischer, during the weekly beekeeping class he teaches in Central Park. “There’s going to be a lot more bees.”

Eager Beekeepers

Even before the beekeeping ban was lifted, Fischer, who runs the Gotham City Honey Co-op, saw a jump in attendance in his weekly beekeeping class, and enrollment this spring climbed from 80 to 110. In April, Fischer and his students met in Brooklyn to learn how to assemble their hives and put together the equipment they ordered. The bees arrived in May, leading to about 100 new hives from his class alone.

A sister organization, the New York City Beekeeping Meetup, has more than 700 members. Another prominent group, The New York City Beekeepers Association, offers classes and talks, and helps aspiring beekeepers set up shop by lending out equipment.

At the Sixth Street Community Center in the East Village, volunteer Ray Sage plans to put in its first rooftop hive this spring.

“I want to start and support them in every way,” he said. And it is not only the bees he wants to support. He’s hoping the bees will help the center’s community garden thrive and flourish. Helping local farmers and gardeners with pollination is a goal of urban beekeeping. “It’s not about the bees,” Fischer is quick to say. “Beekeeping is necessary to local food. It’s about the farmer and the gardener.”

The Gotham City Honey Co-op is starting a true co-op program to help beekeepers extract and bottle their honey. “Everybody is going to be selling their own honey, but we will provide the space and the equipment,” said Fischer.

Veteran beekeepers already race to keep up with the demand for local honey at farmers markets across the city.

“I see a big demand for it,” said David Graves, who sells his Rooftop Magic from hives on three Manhattan buildings at the Union Square Greenmarket. So many people are asking for local honey that Graves has limited the sizes he sells to eight-ounce jars. The same is true in other boroughs. John Howe sells his Fort Greene honey, from the three hives on his rooftop, online at The Brooklyn Bee, while Brooklyn Honey sells its rooftop honey at the Brooklyn Standard Deli in Greenpoint. Both harvests are sold out until fresh stocks are available in July.

The Veterans

New York’s thriving beekeeping community was outlawed in 1999. The city’s health code banned the harboring of wild animals, which included all venomous insects and thus, honeybees. The fine for violations was $2,000. Though violations were uncommon, beekeepers were careful to keep their neighbors happy and unaware.
With black bears threatening his hives in his hometown in Becket, Mass., Graves started hives in the city in 1996, when there “wasn’t a law in the books.”

Though glad to no longer have to worry about fines, Graves is concerned that novices may not be properly trained and is “somewhat hesitant” about the legalization of beekeeping. “If novice beekeepers are not careful it can cause swarms,” he said. Swarms are bee clusters that move away from the hive with the queen bee to tree branches and other spaces, usually because the queen needs more space to continue laying eggs. Well-trained beekeepers know how to prevent swarming by making more room within the hive.

“Even with the law in effect, it doesn’t give us any power,” Graves insisted. Beekeepers are still subject to the whims and fears of neighbors and building residents. He also worries that too many hives in the city will reduce the food sources available to bees, “unless people take the initiative to plant stuff,” he explained. “We depend on this to make a living.”

Andrew Coté, president and founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association, sells honey, beeswax and pollen for allergies at the Union Square greenmarket. A fourth generation beekeeper, his family has kept bees since the 19th century. Coté has hives on his rooftop in the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn. He likes to joke, “The honey was always legal, only the bees were illegal.”

But he doesn’t see the movement growing exponentially. And while he supports legalizing beekeeping, he favors controls. “I believe it is going to lead to problems,” he said. Coté, a professor at Housatonic Community College in Connecticut, said the new registration requirement is too lenient. The New York City board of health is requiring that beekeepers register their hives. He said that courses should have been a required part of the process. “I hope we continue to grow responsibly,” he said.

Reviving a Decimated Population

With beekeeping popping up in cities like Denver, Cleveland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington D.C., and even on the White House lawn, it is surprising to find that honeybees have been severely depleted in recent years.
In the past several years, colony collapse disorder (CCD) has become a frequent occurrence nationwide, in which bees leave the hive, leading to the death of the colony. In a recent study performed by the United States Department of Agriculture, 26 percent of apiaries surveyed across the nation suffered losses due to CCD. The causes OF CCD are still being researched.

The disappearance of bees is one reason Gannon started his backyard hives in City Island. But mostly, it’s a hobby. City Island Gold, the name his son came up with five years ago when Gannon first started his hive, is only sold at his neighbor’s bakery, Sugar & Spice. He also likes to give it to neighbors and friends, all of whom were skeptical of his project at first.

“You just ply them with honey,” he laughed, “and educate them.” Gannon also claims a spoonful of local honey can help clear seasonal allergies and his neighbors come “back in droves,” he said.

Now “local people are proud of something,” he said. They are proud of his honey, but more so of their local honey—their delicious, nutritious, liquid gold.

Nicole Marimon studies journalism at New York University.

All photos by Nicole Marimon

Hofstra University School of Medicine science and education chair Patrick Gannon is also a New York City backyard beekeeper.

Bees swarm around a hive.

Honey in the comb.

Beekeeping thrives on New York City rooftops.

New York City Beekeepers Association founding president Andrew Coté, whose family has kept bees since the 19th century, sells honey, beeswax and pollen (to treat allergies) at the greenmarket in New York's Union Square.