Super Subcultures

Swarming the Rooftops

The end of New York’s urban beekeeping ban wrought hundreds of honey-making hobbyists. But even the movement’s most fervent supporters wonder if it has grown too far too fast.

Swarming the Rooftops

On a cloudless June morning, Jon Huang, wearing a white veil and protective gear, leads me up a spiral staircase to a New York rooftop that is home to seventy thousand bees.

He sets alight some old newspapers to prime the smoker, a stainless steel device with bellows. When blown into the hive, the smoke masks the pheromones and other chemicals that bees use to navigate in defense of their hive, decreasing their aggressiveness.

Each hive contains stacked wooden chambers called supers–Huang’s Italian bees inhabit six, the Russians, four–within which ten frames are set vertically. As the smoker takes effect, Huang pries open the first chamber with a hive tool, lifts its cover gently, and begins blowing in smoke to calm the bees.

Inside, the frames teem with activity. Honey-engorged bees begin flying from the hive. Some seem disoriented and ricochet off my chest or land lazily on the veil Huang lent me. Others appear filled with a distinct sense of purpose, charting a northwest course toward Riverside Park. Huang guesses the bees can travel about two miles.

“I’ve seen bees in Riverside Park that I, hopefully, assume are mine,” he says.

Huang, thirty-one and a native of Austin, Texas, allowed me to visit his beehives on the condition that I not reveal their exact location on the Upper West Side. Beekeepers tend to their hives on rooftops, in community gardens, and in old industrial plots across the five boroughs. Some are neophyte hobbyists; others are carrying on family traditions going back generations. All are passionate about a practice misunderstood by many.

Huang has two hives, one for the Italian breed and the other a newer, sturdier Russian variety. They sit in a small alcove, bound by a fence on one side, a parapet on the opposite side, and the apartment building’s smoke stack on the third. The hive’s placement takes into account a number of factors both biological and aesthetic–it protects the hives from strong winds from the southeast, and also obscures the sight lines of curious neighbors.

Beekeeper Jon Huang inspects his honeybees on the roof of his Upper West Side apartment.
Beekeeper Jon Huang inspects his honeybees on the roof of his Upper West Side apartment.

In 1999, New York City banned one hundred types of exotic pets, from elephants to ferrets, an animal for which then-mayor Rudy Giuliani held a particular dislike. (“The excessive concern you have for ferrets is something you should examine with a therapist,” Giuliani famously advised a caller to his radio show in 2001.)

While the ban made the city streets safe from cheetahs, it also made illegal the keeping of bees. That forced New York City’s beekeepers underground, where a community continued to thrive.

Since the ban was lifted in 2010, beehive registration has exploded, with 102 beekeepers and 161 hives registered as of last May, according to statistics provided by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. These figures do not account for the many unregistered hives across the five boroughs, which some have estimated would put the figure closer to three hundred. Says Liane Newton, an organizer of the NYC Beekeeping Meetup group, the city is experiencing a beekeeping “gold rush.”

While many local apiarists have celebrated the legalization of beekeeping by actively courting the media or participating in local honey festivals, others, like Huang, have chosen to keep a lower profile. Though legal and widely accepted in many circles, bees still carry negative connotations for many who fear stings or swarming.

Even people with longtime bee experience worry the gold rush may be getting out of hand. Amateur beekeepers may not have the experience or knowledge required to stop swarms or properly feed and water their hives. While generally harmless, swarms of bees scare the bejeezus out of many people, threatening to tip the delicate political détente that allowed the legalization of beekeeping three years ago.

Andrew Coté, who founded the New York City Beekeepers Association and fought to legalize beekeeping, now worries publicly that the practice is spreading too quickly. “The hives, and the swarms, have grown exponentially,” Coté told the Post last year. “And the longer they hang on a stop sign or playground, the worse it is for legalized beekeeping.”

Beekeeping in cities dates back to the earliest civilizations. Around 8,000 BC, post-Ice-Age hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent may have accidentally become the first beekeepers when swarms of honeybees nested in clay pots or woven baskets. Some five thousand years later, the Egyptians developed organized beekeeping techniques, as evidenced by hieroglyphs depicting hives, smokers and honey jarring.

Historians believe English settlers introduced the honeybee – which is not native to the Western Hemisphere – to the Colony of Virginia in 1622. Historical records place honeybees in Long Island as early as 1670. By 1800, they could be found from the East Coast to the Mississippi River.

With the 1800s came great strides in beekeeping technology, most notably L.L. Langstroth’s 1852 patent for movable beehive frames, which became standard hardware for most modern apiarists. Around this time bees themselves became commercialized as new markets opened for their purchase and sale. By the 1860s, queen bees–often of Italian origin–were available for sale via mail order catalogs. Simultaneously, immigrant beekeepers from Europe brought the practice to American cities.

What ensued was the inevitable clash of agriculture and urban life. In “One Year Among the Bees,” an essay from 1899, A.H. Duff notes:

Apprentices in the Big Apple Apiary Beekeeping Apprenticeship tend to hives at Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Apprentices in the Big Apple Apiary Beekeeping Apprenticeship tend to hives at Brooklyn Navy Yard.

“A word of caution is in order against allowing bees to soil washings on the line [emphasis Duff’s]. With bees in cities, this nuisance often causes ill feelings amongst neighbors. To prevent this, simply confine the bees on wash days or until all clothes within the danger line, say within a radius of a hundred feet, are taken in.”

Robin Shulman’s 2012 book Eat the City, which looks at New York City’s rich history as a food producer, paints a vivid picture of urban, commercial beekeeping in early- to mid-1900s New York. Storefront, rooftop and garden apiaries were integrated into the city’s fabric for decades, until the rising levels of air pollution gradually pushed bees from the five boroughs.

The number of beekeepers declined steadily. By the time the city banned beekeeping in 1999, remaining beekeepers already comprised an almost secret society, wary of fearful neighbors or landlords who might ask them to remove their hives. Shulman describes steps beekeepers took to stay under the radar, including transporting full honey frames in garbage bags and disguising rooftop hives as heating and air conditioning units.

Then, bee colonies around the world started to die at the hands of a mysterious epidemic called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). A frightening U.S.D.A. report reveals that since 2006, ten million U.S. hives have been lost, at a cost of $2 billion. While the U.S.D.A. and other scientists are still unable to say with certainly why CCD is devastating the honeybee population, they note in the report that the U.S. is “one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster.”

Many have argued that the collapse of bee colonies is caused, in part, by the modern farm industry’s reliance on monoculture. Bees are shipped via tractor-trailer across the country to pollinate a single crop in specific geographic areas (most notably, California’s seven-hundred-thousand-acre almond industry, which produces eighty percent of the world’s almonds) sharing a variety of pesticides and diseases with hives from other regions. Scientists have also pointed to cell phone towers, corn syrup and climate change as stressors that may be contributing to CCD.

Chase Emmons, Brooklyn Grange’s chief beekeeper, uses a smoker on a frame of honeybees.
Chase Emmons, Brooklyn Grange’s chief beekeeper, uses a smoker on a frame of honeybees.

In More Than Honey, a recent documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder, filmmaker Markus Imhoof quotes a dire warning from Albert Einstein: “If bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would only have four years left to live.” The importance of honeybees to our food supply, and economy, cannot be understated: Their pollination supports about one-third of all food we consume.

In a rare twist for modern agriculture, urban landscapes may prove to be important reservoirs of biodiversity for the preservation of bee populations, and hence the food supply. City bees encounter an environment quite different from their rural colleagues, one that offers a wide variety of trees, flowers, and other plants in need of pollination. Also, urban beekeepers are less inclined to use pesticides. As a result, New York City’s bees appear to be healthier, and less susceptible to CCD, than those used to pollinate large-scale commercial farms.

“Bees that have a varied diet and aren’t exposed to agricultural pesticides are healthier,” says Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine and author of several beekeeping guides.

There is also the not insignificant issue of taste. Urban honey’s many varietals offer a wide spectrum of flavors that reflect their microclimates and complex ecosystems that mass-produced, monoculture honey can’t. In New York alone, I tasted a mild, nearly translucent Linden honey on the Upper West Side and a dark, molasses-like varietal just five miles away in the Hunts Point neighborhood in the South Bronx.

But as urban beekeeping grows more common, so too do swarms, causing increased fears among the general populace. The sight of several thousand bees attached to a Chinatown streetlight or Fulton Street fire hydrant rattles the nerves.

“It was a nightmare,” a South Street Seaport restaurant owner told the New York Post last May. “It looked like a million bees flying over Fulton Street. Tourists were screaming.”

Swarming – when a group of roughly ten thousand to twenty thousand mostly female worker bees leave their nest or hive in search of another – is a natural phenomenon by which bees form new colonies. Swarming is rarely dangerous to humans, since the swarm involves bees in their most docile state.

Local beekeepers and the food-focused non-profit Just Food lobbied for years to repeal New York City’s beekeeping ban, informing lawmakers about the minimal dangers of swarms, and about the environmental benefits of a healthy urban honeybee population. Meanwhile, in other cities, attitudes towards bees were softening. According to the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, “cities and community groups around the world are recognizing the importance of bees and embracing urban beekeeping by holding festivals, implementing official urban beekeeping programs and even changing laws which made beekeeping difficult.”

In 2010 the New York City Department of Health reviewed the experiences of several other cities that had recently legalized urban bees. They determined that incidents of bee stings were minimal, and therefore not a public safety threat. The evidence helped convince lawmakers to overturn the ban.

“New Yorkers are kind of wusses compared to L.A.,” says Chase Emmons, chief beekeeper at Brooklyn Grange, one of the country’s largest rooftop farming operations, headquartered in Long Island City, Queens.

Ruth Askren, a Los Angeles-based beekeeper, says “swarms are acceptably part of the landscape in L.A. and Southern California. People expect to see bee swarms.”

Under the law that replaced the ban, beekeepers must register their hives yearly with the health department. New beekeepers are required to register within thirty days of establishing a new hive. The free registration form includes a short list of best practices all beekeepers should follow, including proper sanitation and swarm management, but there is no required training or testing. As long as the bees are not a “nuisance” as defined by the health code, beekeepers, and the public, have little reason to worry. The health department did not respond to multiple requests about hive inspection procedures or penalties for unlicensed or neglected hives, though in 2011 the Post reported that a Queens beekeeper was fined $2,000 for not providing adequate water for his colony of roughly five thousand bees. Other reports have placed the fines ranging from $200 to $2,000 for infractions.

Among beekeepers, the real concern is not fines. It’s about bee stings and swarms. If the swelling ranks of first-time beekeepers do a poor job of maintaining their hives, they worry, an outbreak of bee attacks could push the pendulum of public opinion back against urban beekeeping, and possibly lead to another ban. That concern has led to a civil war of sorts, as the tiny but growing community of New York beekeepers battle online and in person about who does a better job keeping bees and their neighbors safe.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard is a sprawling, three-hundred-acre, forty-building industrial park just a short walk from the foot of the Manhattan Bridge. It’s home to dozens of businesses, from massive warehouses and dry docks to a film studio and an armored car company.

Apprentices in the Big Apple Apiary Beekeeping Apprenticeship tend to hives at Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Apprentices in the Big Apple Apiary Beekeeping Apprenticeship tend to hives at Brooklyn Navy Yard.

On a sweltering afternoon last June, half a dozen beekeeping apprentices met at the Navy Yard’s café on the fourth floor of Building 92 for a meeting of BAABA: the Big Apple Apiary Beekeeping Apprenticeship, a joint venture between Emmons and local beekeeper Tim O’Neal.

“There’s a lot of audio recorders here today,” says one apprentice sitting next to me, noting the presence of three journalists, all of whom fiddle with various gadgets and try to scribble down comments about the media’s recent bee coverage. It’s a testament to both the increased interest in urban beekeeping and Emmons’s media savvy.

Downstairs, as the apprentices gather their gear from storage, I chat with Emmons and John Howe, a veteran Brooklyn beekeeper and founder of NYC Beekeepers, who’s on hand to observe. They discuss the agendas, and egos, of various local bee celebrities.

“I think there’s a TV pilot you could pitch,” Emmons quips. “The Real Beekeepers of New York City.”

While there are few outbreaks of fisticuffs around the hives, tensions among New York beekeepers run high. At the heart of the debate is the theory that with too many bees in an urban area with limited forage, bees will run out of food, which could lead to more swarms.

“What’s going to happen is that these bees might turn around, they might split or swarm going toward the east — just in search of more suitable foraging grounds,” NYPD Officer Anthony Planakis, who is often called on to deal with hives, told WNYC last summer.

The “more beekeepers, more swarms” theory doesn’t hold water with Emmons.

“Commercially, there could be ten bee yards this size,” Emmons says, looking out at Brooklyn Grange’s hives, located at the Navy Yard. “It wouldn’t even begin to satiate the demand in the city.”

Emmons agrees there is a limit to what the city can bear, but thinks we’re nowhere near it.

“As to what that limit is, nobody knows,” he says. “You’ll get plenty of opinions. [If you] say, ‘Back it up with some science, of any sort’? Nobody’s got it.”

Emmons points to the super at his side, brimming with thirty pounds of honey, all produced within the last month, as proof that his bees are having no problem foraging in this stretch of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront.

“Northern cities do really well in the spring, and after that it may get iffy in terms of what’s blooming,” Flottum, of Bee Culture magazine, says. “After June, you may run into some issues.” He estimates that to feed a bee colony for a whole year, an acre of blooming plants and trees are needed for an entire season.

New York, Flottum says, is “not the only city having this debate,” as beekeeping, chickens and urban farming have “exploded” in recent years. In fact, city bees and city gardens coexist quite well.

“The minute you put in a squash plant, you need bees,” he says. “There’s nothing but good that can come from that, as long as you know what you’re doing.”

After the group has packed their hive tools, smokers and protective clothing into the trunks of waiting cars, we all drive a mile to the site of twenty hives set between an inlet and a large salt storage facility. A sign reading “DANGER – Live BEES – KEEP OUT” greets visitors to this low-lying area near the water. Set three abreast for about fifty yards amongst rocky soil and weeds, the hives are a mixture of well-worn and new pine boxes, many freshly decorated by local painters and graffiti artists.

As we approach the hives, the energy of the group is electric and somewhat chaotic. O’Neal, who eschews any and all protective gear to prove that beekeeping is safe, directs the apprentices to fire up their smokers. O’Neal’s cavalier attitude about getting stung doesn’t extend to the apprentices, most of whom are covered but for their hands.

Brooklyn beekeeper and educator Tim O’Neal (in the red shirt) instructs apprentices at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Brooklyn beekeeper and educator Tim O’Neal (in the red shirt) instructs apprentices at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Inspecting a hive, an apprentice finds the queen and O’Neal springs into action. He gently lifts the queen from the frame by her thorax and places her in a small plastic tube with a removable plunger on one end and a screen on the other. He pushes the plunger in, coaxing the queen closer the screen. Once she stands on the plunger, with her back to the screen, he marks her with a yellow paint pen (when he does this during years ending in two and seven, the queens receive a yellow mark). She can be hard to find in a hive of fifty thousand teeming bees, so marking helps assure the queen can be easily located and observed. The queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day. She is the delicate engine on which the entire colony depends. Beekeepers pay close attention to their queens’ habits, moods and health. An infertile or diseased queen can lead to the collapse of a colony.

The gender makeup of the hive is predominately female. At the beginning of a hive’s life cycle, a virgin queen mates with as many as fifteen drone bees – males without stingers, whose only purpose is to mate – and goes on to lay eggs for the next two to seven years she’s alive. The majority of hard work – cleaning, watering and feeding the hive, transporting pollen, creating wax locations – is done by non-reproducing female worker bees. The females also perform the “waggle dance,” a figure-eight sequence the bees use to alert the colony to the location of nectar, water sources, or new potential new hives.

As O’Neal and the apprentices work with the queen, I walk back to the parking lot, where Emmons is smoking a honey super (or “money,” as Emmons calls it).

If one has preconceived notions about the urban beekeeper — a hipster hobbyist with a “back-to-the-land” sensibility or maybe someone with a slightly off-kilter personality in an “outer borough” backyard — Emmons, forty-four, defies them all. He is neither a dilettante nor an idealist; he’s a successful businessman who co-founded the Princeton Review, the popular college test prep service, in the 1980s, and sold his shares for a sizable sum several years ago.

With twenty acres of land in Western Massachusetts, Emmons decided to give beekeeping a try. Now he manages New York City’s largest commercial apiary for Brooklyn Grange, selling honey locally at a premium price. Last spring, he helped open Hayseed’s Big City Farm Supply, an urban farming pop-up shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which was the only brick-and-mortar retailer of bee supplies in the five boroughs during its three-month run.

Emmons received almost two-hundred applications for the hands-on training, much more than they were expecting–“a nice problem to have,” he says. Brooklyn Grange provided the training and equipment free to apprentices.

I leave Emmons to finish extracting honey and catch up with Howe, a longtime Brooklyn beekeeper revered for his knowledge and leadership during the ban years. He sits quietly in a veil watching the next generation of beekeepers learn the craft. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of the amount of attention and popularity New York City beekeeping now enjoys compared to when he started in 2001, during the ban. For years he dreamed of retiring, he says, leaving Manhattan and keeping bees in the country, since that’s where bees live. Then he saw a bee in an outdoor café in Manhattan. If wild bees can live in New York, he figured, surely they can be farmed too.

At the time there were “only a few beekeepers in Brooklyn,” Howe says. He marvels at the number of new beekeepers.

“I’m saddened by all of the politics,” he says. “But I’m glad to see all of the activity.”

Toby Gardner and Kimberly Rubin, two apprentices I encounter nursing their stings in the shade a good distance from the bees, embody that next wave of activity. Gardner has just been stung for the first time, on the hand, as has Rubin. Like O’Neal, they wear no gloves. They mask the pheromone by blowing smoke from their smoker on the sting. They also use a hive tool to quickly scrape the stinger away from the skin.

Gardner, thirty-six, a program coordinator at the job training nonprofit Brooklyn Woods, and Rubin, twenty-two, a recent Columbia University graduate who works at the popular Manhattan restaurant mini-chain Momofuku, applied to the program for the same reasons that many beekeepers cite: an interest in sustainability and a deep curiosity about the behavior of honeybees.

“The bees are really fascinating,” Rubin says. “The whole hive mentality, from the dancing to the swarm procedure.”

Honeybees from the hives of Upper West Side beekeeper Jon Huang.
Honeybees from the hives of Upper West Side beekeeper Jon Huang.

Gardner cuts in: “I joined to meet girls. The hive is ninety-nine percent female, so it’s worked out pretty well for me.”

Eventually I walk back toward the Navy Yard’s main entrance, sun beating down on my head. A security guard pulls up next me and opens the door, saying nothing. I get in without hesitation and revel in the AC, feeling a light throb on my left index finger. I’ve just received my first bee sting.

Back on the roof, Huang voices his surprise at the amount of honey produced since his last inspection, perhaps a result of the warm weather and early bloom the city experienced last spring.

“They’ve made far more progress than I thought they would,” he says, inspecting a frame rich with honey. “It’s been a really good year.”

Unlike other beekeepers I encountered, Huang is not particularly gregarious, nor does he speak about beekeeping in broad, evangelical proclamations. Rather than attend beekeeper group meetings, he watches the proceedings online.

I naively inquire about the number of individual bees in his employ. “In terms of actual individuals, estimates are pretty much blind guessing,” he says. “There are probably around seventy thousand, but I prefer to think of them in colonies. Each bee is not an individual; bees are like cells in a super organism. Only a few of them actually reproduce, which means most of them are willing to fly out and die when they are sick, just like cells.”

He jokes that he will “steal” fifteen or sixteen pounds of honey this day, but is careful to note it’s not just for his benefit.

“I’m pulling off honey not just because the honey is ready and I want it, but also to make sure that they have room to grow,” he explains. “If they don’t have room to grow, they may swarm.”

He keeps his inspections to a minimum so as not to disrupt the bees, and it’s easy to see why. The energy is manic. As some bees fly about, others continue their work unaware of the intrusion underway. Huang scrapes the wax buildup and sets it aside, to be frozen and rendered later into candles or lip balm. He removes each frame and inspects it, replacing it with a fresh frame if it is honey-filled. Frames that are rich with larvae or eggs are returned with as little disruption as possible.

Within minutes, bees that left at the initial disruption of their workday are beginning to return. They form an orderly queue at the base of the hive, entering through a small slot. Anthropomorphized, it’s not unlike the morning rush hour, with bleary-eyed workers climbing back onto a train to return to their labor. The orderliness and sense of purpose is striking.

As a multimedia producer at the New York Times, Huang spends his days writing complex code. Part the team that produced the Emmy Award-winning multimedia series “A Year at War,” his work is at the nexus of today’s journalism, where computer science meets reporting. In his apartment, a computer monitor with lines of code lights the living room.

Observing the symmetry of the frames and the movement of the bees, one cannot help make the analogy between a beehive and software. An infertile or diseased queen bee will send the hive into a tailspin; one ill-placed bit of syntax will render a program useless.

Huang will spend about an hour inspecting the top chambers of both hives. Each grows heavier as we get closer to the core hive, the lowest chamber where the queen is hard at work laying eggs, which Huang will not disrupt. With time, the bees retreat from the frames Huang pulled from the hive. The frames rest on two stacks, honey already dripping onto the roof. I poke my index finger into the honeycomb and come out with a dollop of honey. It is light, both in color and taste, with no discernible notes of flower or fruit. It’s early in the season and the darker hues and flavors will come in the fall.

After Huang has removed his protective clothing and put away his gear, he lets his Chihuahua, Nibbler, out onto the roof. The dog was recently stung and it’s a bit skittish at first, but within minutes he’s nipping and barking at the few bees who have not made their way back to the hive.

“I do have some emotional attachment” to the bees, Huang says, “and I worry a lot about them.”

Beekeeper Jon Huang descends the spiral staircase of his Upper West Side apartment.
Beekeeper Jon Huang descends the spiral staircase of his Upper West Side apartment.

I follow Huang back down the spiral staircase carrying the frames, placing them in a large plastic bin. Later, he’ll harvest about sixteen pounds of honey, spin it in a centrifuge, filter it, and jar it for friends. A bookshelf contains dozens of honey varietals; the neatly arranged jars seem removed from the controlled chaos of the bee colony teeming just one floor above us, aside from one bee that made its way into the apartment attached to a honey-laden frame.

Huang points to the skylight, where a bee is now resting, framed against a perfectly blue sky.

“She only has enough energy to fly around for about thirty minutes, maybe an hour if she has honey in her gut, then she runs dry,” Huang said. “Individually, they’re very dumb and also non-aggressive. It’s kind of sad.”

Huang’s rooftop hives were unscathed during Sandy, but his bees were felled by myriad other factors. “Mites + weather + beekeeper inexperience,” he reports in an e-mail, noting that new packages of bees were to arrive shortly. He takes the loss in stride. “Well,” Huang says, “it’s agriculture.”