by Wendy Wood
Bees on top of the Waldorf Astoria
Just think a minute about wildlife in New York. Bears are nonexistent. Skunks are rare. Rats, and pigeons though plentiful, are not very approachable. There is a true exception. New York City, it turns out, is a great place to be a bee.
“They do really well here,'' says David Graves, who has hundreds of thousands of honeybees in seven hives in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan. “There are so many parks and gardens and rooftop flowerpots. Even if it's dry, they can get the water they need from the East River.''
“They mind their own beeswax, too, and don't go around stinging sidewalk-bound New Yorkers,” Graves insists. The hives are on rooftops — as high as 12 stories — to keep them undisturbed. One can also find them in the yards of Harlem Brownstones, and behind homes and on rooftops in The Bronx where pigeons once were the objects of urban animal husbandry.
Roof top hives
Bees are by far the most important pollinators in natural ecosystems and they play a very important part of pollinating the myriad of plants and vegetation in The City. Flowers in the parks, Green Thumb Urban Gardens, potted plants and blossoms surrounding street trees all benefit from the presence of the bees now being kept by thousands of New Yorkers, which is now legal, thanks to new city regulations that allow residents to become official beekeepers.
The insects are essential to producing more than a third of all foods and beverages humans consume. In the United States, bees contribute over $3 billion a year to the farm economy. The critical role that these animals play cannot be overstated and the fact that New Yorkers can be a part of that contribution should not be overlooked. A typical rooftop bee colony can produce up to 50 pounds of honey a year, which can often be found for sale at the city's greenmarkets.
Farmer's market honey
A recent visit to the roof of a summerhouse in a community garden revealed much about the life of New York bees. Bees were everywhere in the garden, feasting on sedum flowers, drinking pond water from a lily pad. Hundreds swarmed around the boxy, wooden hive, awaiting their chance to enter with whatever bit of nectar they'd found in the Big Apple. Hundreds more took off, one by one like jets at JFK.
Inside, with thousands more bees, was the sticky sweet stuff that beekeepers extract and share with family, friends and often sell locally. Farm bees usually have one crop to pollenate, such as almonds, alfalfa or cotton. Because of the wide variety of flowers and different sources of nectar available, the New York honey has its own flavor. Oftentimes people who have taste tested prefer the New York honey. It’s sweeter. The consistency of urban honey is also often different, with it being much thinner and less viscous than store bought.
The enthusiasm of those who support bee keeping in New York goes beyond their production of honey, though. The idea of having such a natural phenomena in the urban boundaries of the five boroughs captures the agrarian imagination and instincts much like the new crop of rooftop gardens has done all over the metro area.
One of the hardest things is to get people to understand honeybees and not be afraid of them. They're not wasps, not hornets, and not so aggressive. You won't find honeybees swarming around your barbecue in the park or trying to land on your ribs and burgers. They’re much too busy visiting the flora of the area and steering clear of the humans in their ecosystem.
Recently plans were released to install two hives atop a public high school in the Bronx with hopes to show the kids how it's done, extract some honey, show how the bees work. Keeping bees is farming that can be done right here in New York City. We just need to educate people, turn residents on to beekeeping and watch it continue to thrive and enrich our neighborhoods.