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Urban Honey: Keeping Bees in NYC

Text by Juliet Linderman

Photos by Jesse Untracht-Oakner

There are certain things we can see and touch, but seem unbelievable: the way that barley, hops and cereal grains ferment and become beer; how grapes shrivel in the sun to become raisins; how sand, under a great amount of pressure, can become a diamond; how the intricate structure of a bee hive-and the complex society established by its residents-can yield one of the most integral and symbolic parts of the Rosh Hashanah tradition: Honey. But unlike so many other natural processes, the production and harvest of honey-especially in an urban environment like New York City-has carried throughout its history distinctly political, social and even legal implications.

Throughout the ages, honey has served as a spiritual centerpiece across the cultural spectrum: Ancient Egyptians used the sweet sticky stuff to make honey cakes for various rituals, while Jews of the bible referred to the promised land as flowing with milk and honey: a substance so sweet, so fragrant and so luxurious, that it represented, in and of itself, the promise of something better. In so many holy books honey symbolizes the positive and the light-all that is good. It is an eternal reward. The Koran paints honey as an elixir capable of healing sick men, while the book of Proverbs describes honey as imbuing those who ingest it with wisdom. And as the Jewish new year approaches, Jews eat apples and honey-apples the physical manifestation of the dawning of the New Year, and honey the hope for joy, success, sweetness therein.

But in spite of its whimsy, honey exists very much in the realm of the real-throughout the five boroughs beekeepers with varying degrees of discretion have been cultivating hives and harvesting home-made honey for decades in their back yards, community gardens and on rooftops. So why then, in modern day New York City, has something as holy as honey-and with such positive side effects as increased pollination-inspired so much debate?

A Brief Political History of Honey

In 1999, the New York City Department of Health under Mayor Rudy Giuliani made it illegal to keep bees in New York City, classifying them as ”wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm.” Under Section 1.6 of the health code, those who defied the law were at risk of being hit with a fine fetching $2,000. While the law dissuaded many from creating new honeybee colonies in the city, it didn’t stop beekeepers from continuing to care for their hives, but instead forced them to do so in secret.

“I was clandestine about the location of my hives,” said Andrew Cote, a fourth-generation beekeeper in New York City who is the founder and president of the New York City Beekeepers Association, a 180-member coalition of beekeepers.

Over the years, in spite of its illegal nature, beekeeping in the city gained popularity and acquired a number of champions throughout the New York City legislature, including the city council, state assembly and even the Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, all of whom spoke out in favor of amending the health code to legalize beekeeping. In June of 2009, Councilmember David Yassky, who represented the 33rd district in Brooklyn between 2001 and 2008, introduced a bill that would allow beekeepers to legally register their hives. Shortly after the legislation was approved and adopted, the Department of Health proposed an amendment to the code, which would officially legalize beekeeping in the city.

“Honeybees play an important role in urban food production, and beekeepers throughout the five boroughs are vital to making our city greener, healthier and more sustainable,” Stringer said in a statement in early 2010. “New York City should join other major cities across the United States – including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco – to show its support for legal and safe honey-beekeeping.”

The results were overwhelmingly positive: On Tuesday, March 16, 2010, the ban on beekeeping was officially lifted, and beekeepers throughout the city rejoiced. Now, six months later, the beekeeping community in Brooklyn is more vibrant than ever. But if honey is so readily accessible in supermarkets and specialty stores, why keep bees in the boroughs at all?

Beekeeping in the Borough of Brooklyn

On a hot summer evening, Annie Novak is harvesting vegetables atop the rooftop farm she has cultivated above a massive, 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She walks through rows and rows of fresh vegetables, plucking plump cherry tomatoes from their winding vines and untangling bright purple eggplants, resting just slightly above the soil in which they were planted. Novak, along with Meg Paska, who has been featured in a number of newspaper articles and magazine features, keeps several hives of honeybees on the rooftop farm, jarring the crop and selling it under the moniker Brooklyn Honey. Good luck trying to score a jar this season, though: Novak and Paska pre-sold their entire honey crop-that’s roughly 250 jars-to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, for his wedding.

“Here’s one of my girls,” Novak said, as she watched a honeybee land on the tomato plant she was pruning. In fact, the rooftop farm is full of bees, flying in and out of blooms and blossoms, crawling on fruits and vegetables and diligently doing their job: pollinating.

The hives themselves are set up in a far corner of the rooftop. They look like small filing cabinets-white boxes stacked on top of one another-though the bees are by no means confined to their structure. Honeybees have a pollination radius of roughly 3 miles, which means Novak and Paska’s rooftop bees can collect pollen from as far away as Central Park. Whereas most honey sold in grocery stores is made by commercially kept bees fed sugar-water and carries a generically sweet flavor, honey engineered by rooftop bees-which bring back pollen from a vast variety of plants and flowers-reflects the diversity of New York City’s urban flora in its notes, hues and flavors.

Novak, who began keeping bees as soon as she completed the rooftop farm a little less than two years ago, said that the act of beekeeping carries with it great environmental implications in a city like New York: bees need pollen to create honey, therefore keeping bees and jarring honey draws awareness to issues pertaining to green space-or the lack thereof.

“Keeping bees makes us more conscious of the green spaces around them,” she said. “Bees go to street trees for nectar. If they aren’t producing enough honey, I call [the city] and ask for more street trees. Bees aren’t the only insects that pollinate, but they get us thinking about pollination. Everywhere the bees go, the honey acquires a different flavor. Spring honey is light, floral, thin and firm. Fall honey has darker notes, a rich flavor.”

Though Novak is a beekeeping novice, she sees it as something that can exist gracefully and naturally in an
environment like New York City. Not only do bees aid in the sustenance of the existing greenery across the five boroughs, they are fundamentally gentle creatures that have a complicated social structure, not unlike our own. The honeybee population in an active hive can climb up to 20,000 in the summertime, and sustain itself for the better part of three years.

“The apiaries-there is cleanliness and communal nature, that we can only hope to replicate with our own condos and apartment buildings,” Novak said. “It’s the same silhouette, but the hives are more functional.”

Cote, like Novak, views beekeeping as a window into the complex and, in many ways, remarkable life and society of bees. For Cote, beekeeping is a family legacy, and though he’s been practicing the art and science for years, certain mysteries remain.

“I have learned, that the process of learning is never-ending when it comes to honeybees and beekeeping,” Cote said. “No one has all of the answers, and during those few moments when I become content that I have grasped and understood the colony, they will reward my hubris by doing something unexpected. We are caretakers of their hives at best.”

As the summertime winds to a close and the year turns in on itself, we begin the high holy days ushered in by Rosh Hashanah. And while Jews throughout Brooklyn will eat apples and honey and hope to absorb its sweetness, its power and its potency, we can rest assured that there are millions of Brooklyn bees making it for us. Each New Year brings a new crop of honey, and along with that honey-and the bees who make it-comes the promise of new generations of trees and flowers, and life in the city.

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