NYC’s Rogue Beekeepers

This piece was written last semester for my journalism class, and a lot has happened for NYC beekeepers since then. Here is a NYTs article published yesterday about the current state of beekeeping: Bees in the City? New York May Let the Hives Come Out of Hiding. We interviewed the same beekeeper, Andrew Cote!

Tiny honeybees whirr in and out of two wooden chimneystack-like structures. Some are leaving on an “orientation flight” and others are returning from foraging. These hives are not the traditional branch hanging, conical hives popularized by Winnie the Pooh; these are the secret rooftop hives of beekeeper John Howe, known only to him and a select few. The ladder to the hives lies at an eighty-degree angle from the floor, suspended over the three-story staircase. The metal rungs, no more than an inch in diameter, extend to the slim, rectangular cutout in the ceiling. Each precarious step brings you closer to the panoramic view of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Once on the rooftop, the two hives stand like sentries overlooking the edge of the roof to the garden below. About once every two weeks during the season, 66-year-old retired Howe ascends the ladder to tend to his 120,000 honeybees.

“When I first started, I was nervous. I used to wear heavy protection, boots, and I would smoke the hell out of the bees. Now, all I wear is a jacket and veil,” Howe said.

Howe is one of the approximately 50 to 70 underground beekeepers in New York City, according to estimates within the beekeeping community. Howe and his peers must keep the location of their hives hushed; beekeeping has been illegal in New York City since 1999, when former mayor Rudy Giuliani added bees to the list of “wild animals prohibited” in section 161.1  of the city health code.

That may soon change, however, because in January of this year, Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky, known affectionately as “Yassky the Pooh” within the beekeeping circle, introduced legislation that would allow the covert beekeepers of New York City to legally keep their hives. The bill would drop bees from the list of prohibited animals and would also set up a licensing process for all New York City beekeepers. “There is currently a black-market of beekeeping with no oversight,” said Daynan Crull, the city council’s director of policy and legislation. “We are working to decriminalize beekeeping.”

The legislation comes at a crucial time for beekeepers. Their hobby is gaining in popularity with the growth of the local food movement, at the same time that a mysterious condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is threatening many hives. Even the Obamas can’t fight the buzz. In March, the First Family had hives installed on the White House lawn. But increasing national awareness and the pending city council legislation, which is likely to be voted on December 16, have not stopped the city health department from continuing to issue summons to some local beekeepers. And if Yassky’s bill becomes law, no one is sure how the city will license and otherwise regulate a beekeeping community that has been functioning under the radar for the past decade.

In Fort Greene, Howe has been secretly tending his bees for eight years. “They’re important for pollinating local gardens and raising awareness of local food,” he said. Howe extracts and bottles his honey in a designated “honey room” of his house, which is also the site for the New York City Beekeeping Meet-Up Group. The group has 476 members, 20 to 30 of whom are active beekeepers. They meet once a month to work with Howe’s bees. “We want to teach people to be less afraid of bees, we want to raise a consciousness,” Howe said.

Another group, the New York City Beekeepers Association, with 180 members, is also trying to raise awareness. “Our goal is to teach people responsible and knowledgeable beekeeping,” said Andrew Coté, the founder and president of the organization. Coté is a fourth generation beekeeper and has been beekeeping for 30 years. Although the two groups have similar aims, they want to avoid any confusion between the organizations. “We have regular meetings, classes, group run activities, open memberships,” Coté said. “We’ve taken it to a different level, working with Just Food (a New York City non-profit that promotes sustainable agriculture), Yassky, and the Health Department.”

In spite of his cooperation with the city health department, Coté hides his hives throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn on various rooftops, balconies, and backyard gardens. Hiding the hives is simple, according to Coté: camouflage them with paint and avoid telling too many people about their locations. “We don’t really run into issues,” he said. “Generally the neighbors don’t know we’re there.”

That’s not true for all of the members of the group, however; Debbie Romano’s neighbors did know she was there. Romano was eight weeks into her first urban beekeeping adventure when she received a summons in June. She kept her hives in the backyard of her Park Slope, Brooklyn home. “I pretty much know all of my neighbors, but you face dozens of apartments,” Romano said. “I considered putting it on the roof, but it just seemed too hard.” The hives typically weigh fifty pounds, according to Coté.

A city health inspector, tipped off by an anonymous neighbor, said her bees were “causing a nuisance.” The inspector was sympathetic, perhaps because his uncle keeps bees on Long Island, but issued her a summons nonetheless. Romano met with a city magistrate in September, accompanied by a pro-bono lawyer courtesy of Just Food. Once again, Romano faced a comical coincidence: the magistrate who issued the $200 fine came from a family of serious beekeepers.

While waiting for her hearing, Romano donated her hive to The Queens County Farm Museum, the largest and only working historical farm in New York City. The farm is one of the few places in New York City exempt from the ban on keeping bees. Queens County Farm said they would return her bees if the legislation passes.

Although neither Howe nor Coté have experienced problems with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), they both reported a loss of productivity. Howe complained of verroa mites, a crab-like parasite that attaches to the body of a honeybee and feeds on the internal fluids of its host. Although Howe’s colony remains intact, verroa mites are one of the prime suspects in the mysterious CCD. “This year I produced around 30 or 40 pounds of honey, but it’s not a lot,” Howe said.

Often linked to the broader local food movement, urban beekeeping is gaining popularity. “Bees are important for pollinating local gardens and local food. It’s a consciousness raising issue,” Howe said. Membership within the New York City Beekeeping Meet-Up Group waivers around 490, but Howe is hoping to reach 500 members.

One of the major concerns of those opposed to urban beekeeping is safety, but seasoned beekeepers argue that honeybees have a gentle nature. “Honeybees are not aggressive,” Howe said. They sting if they feel threatened, but self-defense is a natural response in any animal, including humans, he added.

Even swarms pose little inherent threat. “Swarms are nothing but a mass of bees, individuals from a colony flying together,” said Dr. Jerome Rozen, Jr., curator and professor of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. As a bee expert, he believes that beekeeping in New York City is a viable hobby. “It’s not going to be a problem,” Rozen said.

Most beekeepers do not see much opposition, nor do they point to one specific event that sparked legislation. “I don’t think there is any organized resistance,” Coté said. He believes the legislation is a natural progression within the greening consciousness of New York City, which is playing catch-up with other cities that have already made beekeeping legal, such as Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, and Portland. “[New York City] doesn’t have a reason not to make this legal,” Coté said.

According to city council staffer Crull, the proposed bill to drop the beekeeping ban is currently waiting for a hearing from the Health Committee. Progress has come to a standstill, he said, because of conflicting priorities, including the swine flu outbreak. “We would like to get it moving in the next few months,” Crull said. Councilman Yassky’s term ends in December, but Crull said they are working to find an appropriate new sponsor for the bill.

Just Food’s website lists December 16 as the tentative date for a public hearing on the proposal, but even after the initial meeting, the bill must pass through another three meetings before being sent to the mayor, who will decide whether to sign it into law.

In the meantime, the Health Committee is keeping quiet on the state of the bill. Calls and emails to the chairman’s legislative office remain unanswered.

For beekeepers, the largest concern is licensing. Under Yassky’s proposal, the city health commissioner would serve as the licensing authority. Potential beekeepers must be over 21 years old and provide written documentation of the location, function, and applied safety measures of their hives. Yassky’s model is similar to regulation in Seattle: the municipal code there includes bees as a “dangerous animal,” but hives are registered and strictly regulated by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

This sort of regulation does not sit well with Howe or Romano. “New York City beekeepers have been flying by the seat of their pants under the radar for so long. They don’t want to be regulated,” Romano said. Their preference for much looser regulation has precedence in San Francisco, the center of the sustainable food movement in the United States. In San Francisco, honeybees are an exception within the health code and the city leaves the beekeepers to regulate themselves.

Coté argues for a more pragmatic approach, “I don’t know if self-regulating is a good idea where people live in such close proximity.” Coté suggests that beekeepers take a course that would give them a license, rather than leave the decision to the health commissioner. He said the group he heads, the New York City Beekeepers Association, would be willing to help oversee the required beekeeping course. “These requirements will be more time and expense for the health department,” he said. “We’ll be willing to take that on our shoulders.”


One Comment on “NYC’s Rogue Beekeepers”

  1. […] raw milk cheese) and local honey from Andrew’s Local Honey (a beekeeper I interviewed for an article I wrote a year and a half ago on rogue beekeepers – before NYC beekeeping was legal!) all gathered at the Union Square […]

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