By Jie Jenny Zou
A stack of wooden boxes resembling a small filing cabinet hums quietly with the activity of over 30,000 honeybees. It’s a tiny home considering the amount of tenants, but a productive one nonetheless.
At the Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm in Long Island City, Queens, four hives sit in relative obscurity along with the rest of the 40,000 square foot plot of mulch and what will soon be rows and rows of green produce.
Chase Emmons, the farm’s beekeeper, is tasked with keeping the buzzing critters alive—providing them with water, room to store nectar, and a little bit of medical care.
“You can think of a myriad of issues that would present themselves when you’re trying to keep a bunch of stinging insects in a crowded city,” said Emmons, who has encountered his fair share of bee fear when transporting bee equipment or bees in buildings.
“If you’re keeping them on a fire escape, coming and going is a problem, bringing them up through buildings that are crowded and people sort of just freaking out because they’re bees, even if you don’t have bees with you,” Emmons said.
Connecting with the Food Supply
With sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline, its own water tower, greenhouse and irrigation system, Brooklyn Grange is both a visual anomaly and an effective wonder. The farm has not been able to keep up with demand for produce and counts high-end New York City eateries like “Bobo” among its clientele.
“It connects me with my food supply, it allows me to be more in touch with where my food’s coming from, where it’s going—not just in my belly—but where it’s going,” Emmons said of his decision to keep bees as an urban farmer that produces about 15 percent of his own food.
Emmons, who divides his time between Massachusetts and Manhattan, compares beekeeping and farming to ‘hacking.’ “To me it was like I was beating the system,” Emmons said. “It wasn’t at all a tree hugger kind of ‘back to the land’ mentality, it was ‘wow, this is kind of cool.'”
“There’s an aspect of hipness to it,” Emmons said, referring to the newfound popularity of beekeeping.
A Growing Trend
As a beekeeping instructor at the Brooklyn Brainery in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, Tim O’Neal had to put prospective students on a waitlist. “I think it’s absolutely catching on,” the 26-year-old said of the increased interest in urban beekeeping.
“I really hope that it is long-term.” “I’ve had plenty of relationships that were shorter than the ones I’ve had with bees,” said O’Neal with a chuckle. “We got a lot of our own honey from a local beekeeper and that was really my first exposure to it, through my parents’ desire to eat locally, to eat healthily and eat sustainably in Ohio.”
O’Neal gave beekeeping a try at the age of 13 using a beekeeper’s handbook he borrowed from the library and his parents’ credit card. When the Ohio native made the move to Brooklyn, he brought along his appreciation for all things bees including a blog chronicling his urban beekeeping adventures (www.boroughbees.com).
“Each hive has its own personality,” said O’Neal who admits to having named a hive or two. “It’s a box of 60,000 stinging insects, but it’s a box of 60,000 stinging insects that doesn’t care about you.”
Bees and the Law
Beekeeping in New York City has only been legal since a health law banning specific venomous animals was amended in March 2010. The department overturned the law after public outcry from city keepers and a study that showed that bee stings posed a minimal risk to the public.
In Long Island, where beekeeping has been largely legal aside from a handful of districts, Constance Still carries on the tradition of beekeeping that began with her late husband over three decades ago.
“We’re allowed to have four hives in a quarter of an acre,” said Still, referencing the Long Island Beekeepers Club Good Neighbor policy, which puts a cap on the number of hives a keeper can have as a matter of building general good will. Still also said that providing your immediate neighbors with a jar or two of honey from your hive doesn’t hurt either. In the city, keepers need only file notice with the health department.
Today, she manages two hives in the backyard of her home in Bayport and creates lip balm and other body products in addition to local honey.
“Everybody usually asks me, ‘Do you get bit?’ And I say no, ‘I’ve never been bit,'” Still exclaimed. “Yes, I’ve been stung. I do not get stung very often, but I do get stung deliberately.” Still said that the numbing sensation from a bee sting helps alleviate the pain from her arthritis.
“People are getting better and more careful about distinguishing between bees and wasps or yellow jackets,” O’Neal said of increasing awareness of bees.
A Way of Life
For Jim Fischer, who maintains over 40 hives throughout the city with his wife, beekeeping is a way of life.
“In a rural environment where people are farmers, they certainly are much more accepting of beekeeping as being something that is just as normal as having dairy cows,” Fischer said. “They’re little tiny livestock, you know? But they’re still livestock.”
“The community wasn’t quite as open and vibrant as it is now,” O’Neal said, comparing the pre-legalization group with today’s crop of keepers. “Now everybody has the option of coming and learning about this important aspect of our food culture and our food system without any fear of consequence.”
“There’s definitely been an increase in interest in beekeeping,” said Fischer who teaches a beekeeping class that runs from late winter to early spring. The annual free class is offered by New York City Beekeeping, a cooperative of nearly 1,200 beekeepers and enthusiasts in the city. Fischer kept hives in the city before it was legal and even transported a hive to Still’s residence after being reported.
“The announcement that the bees were dying created a great deal of interest, people were coming out of the woodwork,” Fischer said. “This year the class had 150 students and of that 150, about 118 are starting new hives this spring.”
The commercial bee business was hit hard in 2006 with the onset of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which led to a mysterious die-off of thousands of beehives across the country. The loss negatively impacted the U.S. almond crop in the West, which is where the majority of commercial beekeeping efforts are concentrated.
“People can’t have urban agriculture without urban beekeeping,” said O’Neal, stressing the inextricable link between farming and bees. “They can’t grow crops reliant on honeybees for pollination if there are no honeybees in the city.”
On a 6,000 square plot of land atop Greenpoint, Brooklyn, bees have played a role since the very beginning.
“It’s really hard to measure what it would be like to grow the crops without bees because we’ve always had bees on the farm,” said urban farmer Annie Novak, who decided to install hives on Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in 2009 before beekeeping was legal. “I know that bees—for us as farmers and for myself and for our customers, it’s a great source of really delicious honey.”
According to O’Neal, a single hive is capable of producing 100 pounds of honey per year, but it’ll take at least two years before a beekeeper can extract harvestable honey. Beekeepers must provide hives with a stockpile of honey large enough to last the bees through winter.
Honeybees collect nectar from local flora within a three to five mile radius from their hive, often making a quick beeline to expansive green spaces like Central Park or even venturing across state lines to the nearest orchards in New Jersey. The result is a sticky and rather solid, pale yellow substance known as raw honey, which is heated and clarified to produce the clear golden goo, we’ve come to normally expect.
“Once you get into beekeeping for less than $300, there’s actually very little expense in maintaining the hive,” Fischer said of the monetary commitment associated with the practice. “Bees will feed themselves, so all you have to deal with is monitoring for all these invasive species—all these pests and pathogens.”
Equipment includes wooden frames onto which the bees build their honeycomb and store nectar, bee suits to protect against stings, and a smoker that calms the bees and allows keepers to inspect hives up close.
And then of course there are the bees themselves. A three-pound starter package of bees, which includes about 40,000 bees and a single queen, will set you back $70 or $80 and can be transported live via postal mail.
“In terms of time commitment, it’s certainly no worse than any other pet you may have,” O’Neal said, who spends anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes per week checking on the status of a hive. “It’s probably more than a goldfish, but it’s also a lot more fun than keeping a goldfish, so it’s worth it.”