Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
Colonization is alive and well in Manhattan today.
It’s eight-thirty on a Tuesday morning, and fourth generation beekeeper Andrew Cote is clutching two rectangular wood boxes on a busy corner of Chelsea. Inside each box: 12,000 Italian honeybees.
“They’re the most docile,” notes Cote. He would know. As the founder of the seven-year-old NYC Beekeepers Association, Cote helps New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs install their own honey-producing beehives.
"It's one of the coolest rural things you can do in the city,” remarks Chris Nelson, 23, a member of the NYCBA’s apprenticeship program. Dressed in a protective beekeeper suit that resembles a hazmat outfit, Chris will assist with today’s colony installation on a balcony overlooking the stretch of Sixth Avenue known as Ladies Mile.
As Nelson remarked, this bee farm—or apiary, in beekeeper-speak—could just as well be in the greenery-rich, spacious environs of upstate New York or Long Island. Yet just below the hive is a lively retail stretch with nonstop bustle and concrete—not that the bees will mind.
The apartment’s owner, Lybess Sweezy, already has a pair of multi-tier wooden hives installed, but they’re empty. (A clutch of “robber bees” raided them last fall, when resources were scarce, clearing out the honey and remaining occupants.) With liberal application of sugar water to the barren honeycomb-lined frames, Cote unleashes the bees and places the queen, encased within a small, candy-sealed container, inside.
In a few days, the worker bees will liberate their Queen and begin foraging a three-mile radius around the apartment for nectar, which may include the nearby High Line’s impressive array of flora. The hive will yield up to three harvests per year depending on weather, queen productivity, and other factors. That honey, Lybess adds, will be “delicious.”
Urban beekeeping has blossomed over the past half-decade. A troubling dip in bee populations in 2006 led to a combination of efforts to help boost local bee populations. When combined with a locavore make-your-own-honey ethos, it led to a surge in urban beekeeping. The trend has even caught on with high-end hotels like the Waldorf Astoria, which installed its own apiaries to supply artisanal honey for their food and beverage programs.
Today, the NYCBA’s membership currently counts hundreds of these hives. Locations range from residential and office building rooftops to community gardens.
Matching would-be beekeepers with those offering hive space is one of the NYCBA’s valuable services. At a suggested $25 per-year dues to assist with operating expenses, membership also includes monthly seminars with topics like how various terroir and flora affect honey flavor profiles and assistance with purchasing bee packages. A four-week “Urban Beekeeping 101” course is offered during winter months, and those interested in a comprehensive hands-on experience regarding all aspects of the trade can apply for one of eight annual apprenticeship slots. Additionally, the NYCBA provides volunteer public services like swarm removals and speaking engagements at schools.
There’s also a significant social element to the NYCBA, attests Molly Conley, a graphic designer who decided to pursue beekeeping in 2012. She maintains six hives divided between the West Village and Jersey City. “I had an interest in biodynamic agriculture and beekeeping is part of that,” she says. “A Google search brought me to the NYCBA, so I took my first class and fell in love with the vibrant, dynamic community that exists. It’s a really great organization, and there’s such a diversity of people represented, all in the spirit of friendship and learning. It’s a really special group.”
Of course, it’s also about the delectable, artisanal honey, which varies in look, flavor, and texture depending on the flora within the bees’ three-mile foraging radius as well as the changing seasons. Bees get busy in springtime and wind down when temperatures dip below 50-degrees and “they cluster together and dream of spring, although they don’t sleep since they have no eyelids,” jokes Cote.
“Our honey tends to be lighter in color and flavor early in the season, and gets progressively darker later on,” Conley shares. “For those with allergies, urban honey is the best thing for them because they’re consuming honey containing pollen from the flowers they’re coming in contact with and building immunity, so it has that benefit as well.”
As for how many times urban beekeepers should expect to get stung per season by the relatively non-aggressive apis mellifera, aka western honeybees? ”Some people do try to keep count,” admits Conley “This season I’ve been stung probably fifteen or twenty times. Honestly, it’s not that big of a deal for a beekeeper to get stung. If it happens, I figure, ‘maybe I should have been more careful!’”