It has just begun to rain on a gray Thursday morning when I step out onto the 20th-floor terrace of New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, where a half-dozen people are eyeing a row of six squat beehives lining the northern balcony. Patrick Cote, the young bleach-blond nephew of Andrew Cote and a fifth-generation beekeeper, is walking between the raised-bed gardens, puffing smoke out of a tin-can-and-bellows censerlike contraption. Andrew explains that the smoke blocks the pheromones that the bees will use to raise the alarm that we’re breaking into their hives and stealing their honey.
David Garcelon, culinary director at the hotel, is up here, too, clad in his white chef’s coat, overseeing the first honey harvest of the year. He came to the Waldorf two years ago from a hotel in Toronto, where he ran a similar rooftop garden and apiary. New York had just legalized beekeeping, and hives were popping up around the city—on the roof of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Resources Defense Council, and in backyards around Brooklyn. Garcelon contacted Andrew, who wrote the best-practices guide to New York beekeeping and founded the New York City Beekeepers Association, and the two of them set to work building hives on the roof of the iconic hotel.
At 20 stories, it was the tallest project Andrew had worked on, and he worried initially that high winds at such a height might be a problem. But he says the Waldorf’s project worked out better than many of his other hives in the city. Andrew is in his early 40s, tan, with short-cropped gray hair. He’s here with his nephew and his dad, Norm, a former firefighter whose hobby, in his words, “got out of control.” Andrew started beekeeping when he was 10 years old, and now tends about 50 hives in the city, on rooftops, community gardens, and balconies in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, selling the honey at farmers markets in the area. As New York’s native bee expert, he also gets called in to wrangle roaming swarms—it’s easy, he says: just capture the queen and the rest will follow—and to help places like the Waldorf get their apiaries started.
Last year the Waldorf harvested 125 pounds of honey, and expects more this year. Each week, Andrew, Garcelon, or members of the kitchen staff check in on the hives to make sure the bees are happy, which for bees means well-fed, hydrated, and ventilated. The honey is used in the hotel’s kitchens, in dishes like a lemon-and-thyme-infused honey glazed fried chicken, or a habanero and honey scallop sauce.
After the harvest on Thursday, we try a series of dishes using the rooftop honey, some of which use it in unexpected ways—like a strawberry, honey, and goat-cheese soup—and all of which are delicious. Of course, six hives can’t supply the Waldorf’s three restaurants with all the honey they need, but they’ve become an extremely locally sourced supplement to the kitchen’s stock, as well as a stop on the hotel tour.
In some ways, Andrew says, urban bees are luckier than rural bees, which have been devastated nationwide by colony collapse disorder. Since 2006, 30 percent to 50 percent of the commercial beehives in the U.S. have collapsed, devastating some regions so badly that bees had to be trucked in from other states to pollinate crops. But city bees don’t encounter the pesticides and fungicides that scientists believe weaken bees’ immune systems, leaving them susceptible to parasites and disease. They also have a greater diversity of plants to feed on than a hive placed near, for example, a giant crop of corn. “Living near Central Park is a smorgasbord,” says Andrew.
City bees do face some uniquely urban problems. Andrew says there may not be enough plants to keep up with the city’s sudden surge in hives, and New York’s bees could start to go hungry, as they have in London, which never outlawed beekeeping. When bees get hungry, they can seek out less traditional sources of food. In 2010, Andrew was called in when a hive in Brooklyn suddenly started producing bright red honey. It turned out the bees had discovered a maraschino cherry factory in Red Hook and started bringing the syrup back to the hive. Right now Andrew has a hive in Brooklyn that’s producing blue honey. “I don’t know what they’re eating,” he says.
The bees on the Waldorf are set, though. In addition to Central Park, they have new raised bed gardens on the rooftop with basil, sage, thyme, tomatoes, and squash. “They like to say the Waldorf has a 92 percent occupancy rate,” says Andrew. “Our hives are about the same.” Each hive contains about 60,000 bees.
And right now they’re all home. It’s raining, so all the bees that would normally be out foraging are waiting in the hives, which makes it a less-than-ideal time to steal their honey. “They’re going to be cranky because of the rain,” he says.
Andrew lifts the roof of the first house and his dad uses a small metal hook to pry the first wall of honeycombs out of the hive. He hands it to me. It’s surprisingly heavy, and covered in bees. Norm takes it back and bangs it against a cart that’s been brought up for the honey until the remaining bees take off and join the gathering cloud buzzing above us.
Hundreds of bees are whizzing circles around the Cotes as they stack honeycombs on the trolley. Every couple of seconds, one pings off the front of my mask. I would maybe call the behavior cranky now, but when Andrew comes over and drops a writhing mass of bees in my hands, they just crawl around industriously. It tickles even through the heavy rubber gloves. Then my ankle starts burning.
“Hey, I think one stung me.”
“Yeah, they’re mad,” says Andrew, who, by the end of this will have been stung 30 times—more than usual, on account of the rain, but he says after three decades of beekeeping your body doesn’t react as strongly to bee venom.
“What do I do with all these bees?” I ask, holding out my handfuls of swarming insects.
“Clap your hands,” says Norm.
“Do a bee dance,” says Andrew.
I do what I think is a bee dance, which is to wave my hands around and hop away on my unstung leg. Garcelon says I should stand a bit back now, because when bees sting, and die, they release a pheromone that tells other bees to come “finish the job.” I stand back.
The honey cart full, Andrew puts the roof back on the hive and we take the elevator down to the second-floor kitchen. Norm takes an electrically heated knife and slices off the top layer of honeycomb, the wax caps that hold the honey in, and places the tray in a centrifuge. It takes about half an hour of spinning, first in one direction and then another, before the honey is whipped out of the wax combs and drips down the walls of the centrifuge and out a spigot at the bottom, where it’s strained again for any wax chunks. “We have to be sure to remove all the wax, so it’s kosher,” says Andrew. “It’s almost Rosh Hashanah.” According to the Talmud, honey is kosher because it’s nectar that’s never digested by the bee, while wax, because it’s produced by the bee, is not.
Chef Garcelon and several members of the kitchen staff are standing around, watching the honey sluice out of the centrifuge. The honey is pale and bright—Norm compares it to champagne. The second harvest, in the fall, will be darker, because of the different flowers in bloom.
Garcelon dips a spoon in and tastes. “Very herbal, minty, some thyme, rosemary, lots of linden,” he concludes. Andrew tastes and agrees—“Lots of linden”—before returning to the roof to continue the harvest.
I have no idea what linden—the tall, bushy trees with yellow-white flowers that fill Central Park—tastes like, but the honey is delicious: tangy, a little savory and bittersweet. Really, the idea of a honey palette had never occurred to me, but apparently there’s a National Honey Board, an official panel of honey tasters, and they’ll be brought in this September to appraise the New York Waldorf’s product against the Hawaii Waldorf’s. Garcelon is confident his team will win.