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High above the streets of New York City, dedicated beekeepers tend to millions of the city’s tiniest residents. They produce honey, pollinate flowers and get people back in touch with nature in the busy metropolis. Writer Franka Leehr explains.
Text by: Franka Leehr
Country: United States

ith more than 8 million inhabitants, New York City ranks among the biggest metropolises in the world. Called “the city that never sleeps,” it is a place of relentless social, political, economic, and cultural activity. But on its rooftops and in its parks and gardens exist equally bustling societies—on a much smaller scale. New York City is home to several hundred beehives tended to by an ever growing group of local bee enthusiasts.

This might seem a new and almost revolutionary idea, but “beekeeping in New York City is not new at all. Bees have been kept in urban areas for thousands of years” explains Andrew Coté, full-time beekeeper and founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association (NYCBA) in an interview with Money Magazine.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, today more than a third of the world’s food crops depend on bees and other pollinators, making humans highly reliant on those little creatures. However, recent years have seen a rapid reduction in the numbers of wild and domestic bees that is attributed to a wide array of causes including the spreading of diseases and parasites, the misuse of pesticides, and a loss of floral biodiversity.

Concern about the vanishing of bees is certainly one reason why urban beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular in places such as New York City, London, Tokyo, Melbourne or Johannesburg. While scientists and politicians discuss its causes and consequences, New Yorkers and others have taken matters into their own hands by starting their own hives or cooperating with a local association of apiarists.

This is how Teresa, who tells her story on the NYCBA blog, got into beekeeping. While looking for regional honey, she was surprised to find a jar of local honey from Brooklyn and decided to get involved. Another urban beekeeper, Martha, is originally from Pennsylvania. “I got interested in beekeeping for two reasons,” she told TeaTime-Mag. “First of all, my grandfather had bees and it always fascinated me. Secondly, I am a biologist and I love to learn about anything living. Bees are so complex. I knew I would only really learn about them if I had my own.”

For bee lovers and apiculturists like Teresa and Martha, New York has a lot to offer. Groups and associations such as New York City Beekeeping or the New York City Beekeepers Association offer workshops and training programs, as well as general help setting up your own apiary. Around 300 hives had been registered in New York City in 2016 and their number is constantly growing. Hotels like the Waldorf-Astoria and the InterContinental Barclay, skyscrapers such as the Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan and areas like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Green-Wood Cemetery are only a few of the places that are now home to New York’s beehives.

There is no shortage of food for the bees in the city either. Parks, cemeteries, green roofs, gardens and even balconies provide excellent foraging grounds, allowing the bees to produce hundreds of pounds of honey and other products. These are then processed and sold at farmers’ markets and at retail locations, or served in bakeries and restaurants, some of which even keep their own hives on their rooftops. Other than local honey, the renaissance of urban beekeeping also offers New Yorkers the ability to buy locally sourced pollen, propolis, or royal jelly, as well as wax and candles or cosmetics like shampoos, body wash, lip balms, skin creams, and lotions. Interested citizens can also learn about bees and their importance for the environment from apiculturists like Tim and Shelly of Borough Bees in Brooklyn. “We focus on sustainable beekeeping with an eye towards education rather than honey production. We harvest for personal use and community sharing rather than sales,” they told the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center.

Taking care of the bees

But beekeeping in New York City was not always as easy and as popular as it is now. Although apiculturists had been practicing their hobby openly for years already, it was only in 2010 that keeping honeybees was officially legalized in the City of New York. Before that, hive owners could be charged with a fine of $2,000 and also often had trouble finding a home for their bees in the first place. “In the very beginning, I didn’t really have a lot of opportunity or a lot of options. I placed my beehives wherever I could—on top of the Bridge Cafe in the Financial District, community gardens, friends’ rooftops or balconies,” Coté told the online magazine 6sqft. Today, things are easier for aspiring apiculturists.

Other than finding a suitable location, all they have to do is notify the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, use moveable-frame hives and provide a constant source of water for the animals. Further regulations require beekeepers to place their hives in a way that the bees’ movement doesn’t disturb pedestrians or residents, to remediate aggressiveness, to avoid overcrowding and to report diseases and parasites.

These relatively relaxed rules are a cause of concern for more experienced apiarists. Beekeeping can be a time-consuming activity, as Martha told TeaTime-Mag: “On average it is about an hour per hive per week. Right now I have four hives, so technically speaking I should spend about four hours beekeeping a week.” But not everybody finds the time to tend to their bees that often, and neglecting a hive could have disastrous consequences. “As a beekeeper, I also take care of the bees. There are now many diseases and of course the varroa mite, which plague all bees. If you leave your bees alone all year round and do not check on them or give them medicine to fight off the mites, you are creating a breeding spot for mites and other pathogens,” she explains. And not only the insects suffer from some beekeepers’ negligence, as swarms of homeless bees cause panic among locals and tourists on New York’s streets every spring and summer.

While swarming is a natural phenomenon by which the colonies reproduce, it is up to the apiarists to prevent or minimize swarming or to provide a new home for the queen and her entourage of worker bees. Although the swarming bees don’t have a hive to protect at that time and are thus particularly docile, their sudden appearance can be a scary sight. In an interview with the New York Post, a restaurant manager from the Seaport District recalls an episode where his customers were chased away by a swarm of bees. “It was a nightmare,” he states. Even though he called a swarm removal hotline straight away, it took hours before the swarm was removed.

Considering the complications that the trend toward urban apiculture entails, some might ask what the actual advantages of keeping bees in the Big Apple are. Coté’s answer is clear: “Beehives in New York City are healthier, I would say, than the beehives in the Midwest. There is little to no spraying (of pesticides) on top of buildings, no chemicals interfering with their ins and outs,” he told Reuters in 2016. This is also reflected in the quality of the honey, which is low in residue and— due to the variety of flowers available to city bees— particularly aromatic.

And for the beekeepers, of course, the reward lies in their work itself: “I am proud to produce an ecologically responsible local product that tastes fantastic!” Martha declares. “I also love seeing the world from a bee’s perspective. I notice a lot more what is blooming and whether my bees will like it or not. I notice my environment and the weather much more than before I had bees. Anything that makes you more conscious of your surroundings is good!”

Info Box

● There are about 20,000 species of bees, only seven of which are honey bees. In New York City, only the western honey bee (apismellifera) can be legally kept.

● In the early 20th century, beekeeping was common in New York City. However, the number of hives declined in the following decades and in 1999, bees were included on a health code list of animals that citizens of New York were not allowed to keep.

● Before the ban was repealed in 2010, apiculture began to experience a renaissance in New York City. Numbers of beekeepers and hives have grown exponentially ever since.

● To start your own hive, you can buy packages of bees for around $125. Another way of getting involved is hosting a hive on your rooftop or in your backyard that is tended by a private beekeeper, the New York City Beekeepers Association or companies like Brooklyn Grange and the Best Bees Company.


Keeping New York Buzzing

New York City is one of the biggest cities in the world. It has over 8 million people and is home to millions of bees. Beekeeping in New York City is not new; it was very common in the early 20th century. In 1999 it became illegal to keep bees in the city, but many people still kept them as a hobby. In 2010 the city repealed the ban and urban beekeeping exploded. There are now over 300 registered hives.

In recent years both wild and domestic bee populations have declined worldwide from the spread of diseases and parasites, the misuse of pesticides, and a loss of floral biodiversity. Yet, more than a third of the world's food crops depend on bees and other pollinators. This growing concern about the vanishing of bees is making beekeeping popular again.

For bee lovers and apiculturists, New York has a lot to offer. Beekeeping groups and associations offer workshops and training programs and can help you set up your own apiary. Parks, cemeteries, green roofs, gardens, and balconies offer a lot of food for the bees to produce hundreds of pounds of honey and other products, such as propolis, royal jelly, wax, candles, and cosmetics.

With urban beekeeping becoming more popular there is a risk that new keepers might neglect a hive, which could have disastrous consequences. However, Andrew Coté of the New York City Beekeepers Association believes that beehives in New York City are healthier than in the Midwest since they rarely spray pesticides on top of buildings. This also provides higher quality honey. So you get better honey, healthier bees, and people who are more conscious of their surroundings!



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Keeping New York Buzzing



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Elementary: Nationalities 2

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Beekeeping in NYC

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