July 28, 2021
In April 2020, during the height of the pandemic in New York City, a delicate rescue mission took place.
Andrew Coté and three colleagues, wearing heavy-duty masks and gloves, rode an elevator, climbed two sets of stairs and struggled up a 20-feet vertical metal ladder to the roof of an empty building in Midtown Manhattan. There, they retrieved four 150-pound boxes full of hundreds of thousands of agitated bees; transported them to the street; and loaded them onto a pickup truck with others from neighboring rooftops.
Indeed, although she is no longer the First Lady, Melania Trump might be proud: New Yorkers have gotten hooked on beekeeping—and their goal is to “Bee Best.”
The apiary at the Queens County Farm Museum is now a who’s who of Manhattan rescue bees. They hail from the rooftops of the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel, the Brooks Brothers flagship and the New York Institute of Technology, among other places. The apiary officially opened early last summer, which was perfect timin—since a good portion of New York’s honeybees (many of whom live atop office buildings and hotels across the city) found themselves untended and in limbo during the shutdown.
SgriAccording to the Times, since New York City legalized beekeeping in 2010, it has grown in popularity. It is a small-space activity; a hive is roughly the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet. There are now bee-focused nonprofits, public parks with pollinator gardens and jars of hyperlocal honey in abundance at green markets. The new apiary in Queens, which has basically handled overflow during the pandemic, shows how bee-crazy New Yorkers have become.
But there is also a growing concern among some scientists that honeybees, most of them imported to the city to feed this beekeeping frenzy, are a threat to New York’s native pollinators, whose dwindling populations could affect local flora and the environment at large.
When the virus slowed our lives down, encouraging us to stay in our homes, enjoy the outdoors, and focus on activities in the natural world (such as bird-watching or gardening), the zeal for urban beekeeping intensified, too. Sean Flynn, a beekeeper for over five years, took the opportunity to share his passion with his youngest daughter, Alaura, 18.
“I’ve always had this fascination with the hive mentality — it’s about the collective and the greater good,” Flynn recently told The New York Times. He put a hive in his middle daughter’s bedroom when she went off to college six years ago. He kept the windows open in his sixth-story apartment so the bees could come and go as they pleased. The neighbors never noticed.
Flynn now inspects and monitors 12 different hives in various community gardens across the city. Recently, he captured a swarm outside the Javits Center. Although he is allergic to bee stings, Mr. Flynn temporarily housed the Javits bees in his own bedroom until he could relocate them — something he has done several times before to his own detriment.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees city beekeeping, recorded 326 registered hives in 2020. While beekeepers are required to register their hives, they often don’t. Coté, the president of the New York City Beekeepers Association and a fourth-generation beekeeper, believes there are more than 600 active hives in the city.
Several establishments, like the Bushwick bakery L’imprimerie, and the New York Hilton Midtown, now have their own hives so they can make dishes and cocktails with homegrown honey, said Dan Winter, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation and president of the Empire State Honey Producers Association. “People want to know where their honey comes from, and they like it local.”
“As far as important species go, bees are top of the list. They pollinate more than one-third of the crops that feed 90% of the world,” Winter told the Times. “Honeybees are responsible for $30 billion a year in crops.”
Jennifer Walden Weprin, the executive director of the Queens County Farm Museum, has seen renewed interest in the farm’s beekeeping courses, which started up again in the spring. The apiary’s 40 colonies, with over 2 million bees, rival the human population of the borough. The rescue bees will most likely become permanent residents now that they’re settled, but the owners of several of their former homes have expressed interest in creating new rooftop colonies.
There is a small movement afoot: Bee houses are being installed across the city. The Bee Conservancy, based in New York, created its Sponsor-a-Hive program last year in collaboration with Brooklyn Woods, a nonprofit that trains unemployed and low-income adults in woodworking and fabrication. The pine bee houses are designed with a mixture of nesting tubes for native bees to ensure a diversity of species.
“If you want local food, you really need local bees,” said Guillermo Fernandez, the founder and executive director of the Bee Conservancy. “For many bees, an area of a couple hundred feet might be their entire world, so small things can add up to a lot,” said Mr. Fernandez, who finds the chaos of the hive relaxing. “A hive is a box of calm in a frantic city,” he said. “The buzz and gentleness is quite soothing.”
Since February, Brooklyn Woods graduates have created over 350 bee houses. Christine Baerga, 31, who lives in Jamaica, Queens, has had some part in crafting most of them so far. Baerga’s life changed for the better during the pandemic, when she moved out of a homeless shelter and became a celebrated bee house artisan.
“Bees are master craftsmen and builders,” Baerga said. “They’re one of the more important creatures in the world. Without them, there is no us.”
Research contact: @nytimes