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Finally, New Yorkers Can Bee All They Can Bee

Honeybees have long been about as welcome in New York City as poisonous snakes.

They were classified as wild and dangerous animals — and banned by the city's Department of Health. That meant beekeepers had to go clandestine, keeping secret hives in backyards, in gardens and on roofs.

Now the agency has lifted its ban, and beekeepers are coming out of the closet — and into the classroom.


Building Buzz

On a warm spring Sunday in Central Park, when the park is filled with crowds, 110 people are sitting inside a building next to the Central Park Zoo. For three hours, they listen to beekeeper Jim Fischer, head of the Gotham City Honey Co-op, who is teaching them how to raise bees.

"'Yikes, I got stung!'" Fischer says, mimicking a common complaint of people new to handling beehives. "Well, you are a beekeeper, you are going to get stung. Have you done worse things, stubbing your toe? Yes, you have."

This weekly class started when beehives were still illegal in New York, but interest has grown since the health code changed last month. When hives were illegal, people could get fined up to $2,000, and there were about a dozen complaints a year. But most hives weren't noticed.

Hungry For Honey


Deborah Grieg is the urban agriculture coordinator of East New York Farms. She has two hives at a half-acre community garden that produces more than 7 tons of food each year. East New York is a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, with 180,000 residents.

"There isn't a lot of access to good food in the neighborhood, and very few grocery stores," Grieg says.

The diverse community — whose residents include West Indians, Russians, Latinos and Bangladeshis, among others — often wants foods that are not easily available. And it also wants local honey.

Honeybees work on their hive at East New York Farms community gardens in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Margot Adler
Honeybees work on their hive at East New York Farms community gardens in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"We've been keeping bees for about six years," Grieg says.

And most of that time, beekeeping was illegal. So did she ever get in trouble? .

"No, I think the folks in this community are particularly connected to their agricultural roots. After all, how could honey not be good? And the only time that folks have gotten stung by bees in this garden have been by wasps, which aren't bees at all."

In The Belly Of The Bees

Grieg and Fischer put on bee jackets and veiled hoods and open the hive, which looks a little like a small file cabinet. Grieg removes one of the trays, and you can see the brood and all the bees swarming around the queen.

"There's the queen, right there," says Fischer, pointing to a slightly larger bee. "They are following her. She is freaking; she is running; we disturbed her."

One hive can produce 100 to 150 pounds of honey. And with so many bees dying out around the country because of what's known as "colony collapse disorder," Fischer says, "bees have become this symbol of keeping the environment away from a path toward disaster. It is really not about the bees, or the honey — it is about growing local food, and the realization that you don't just put seeds in the ground, and toss some water on them. It is a more complex process."

In other words, even in New York City, trees and plants need to be pollinated by bees.

Still Going Rogue

Back in that classroom near the zoo, Fischer tells his class that although beekeeping is now legal, sometimes stealth is still a wise course.

"We paint beehives to look like rooftop air conditioning units," he says. "I have a little jacket I wear when I go up on roofs that says, 'Al's Air Conditioning.' There is no such company."

The class laughs. There is clearly still a teeny bit of the outlaw in New York City's beekeepers.

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