Two Years After Legalized Beekeeping, City May be Running Short on Forage

Monday, June 25, 2012

New York has been a hive of activity since a certain rural hobby was legalized in 2010. Urban beekeeping has exploded with nearly 200 registered hives in the city, and experts say there may be another 200 off the books. It’s leading some to question whether the city can sustain the increasing number of hives.

On the roof of York Prep School on the Upper West Side beekeeper Andrew Cote, 40, peels off the tin top of a hive and pops out one of nine wooden frames. It’s covered by agitated honey bees.

“They’re working, they’re attending to their babies,” he said.

He turns over the honey comb-filled frame wearing elbow length leather gloves. A cloud of bees hovers around his veiled face.

Satisfied, he gingerly slides the tray back into the hive like a folder in a file cabinet.

Cote works with the school’s beekeeper club and assists with a curriculum on bees. He also harvests the honey to sell.

With hot summer temperatures, Cote is concerned about his bees getting enough water and not overheating.

It’s just not the heat that’s the problem. Like everywhere else in New York, there seems to be a shortage of available real estate. Cote worries there are not enough flowers to support the growing bee populations — especially in certain neighborhoods where beekeeping has blossomed.

Cote, who helped write the guidelines for good bee keeping, may be part of the problem, too. He tends about 50 hives in the city.

He sells his “hyper local” honey at city farmer’s markets, where some small jars go for as much as $20. But his honey yields are down about 50 percent from last year at some hives in the East Village, Union Square, Greenpoint and Williamsburg.

In London, where beekeeping was never illegal, experts say too many hives concentrated in certain neighborhoods led to starving bees. Angela Woods, secretary at the London Bee Keepers Association, said her city could be a preview of what’s coming for New York.

“What happens is they don’t get enough pollen and nectar and people feed them on syrups, and it’s the equivalent of eating hamburgers for six months,” Woods said.

Malnourished bees? Tim O’Neal, who keeps four hives in Fort Greene, doesn’t buy it. He notes that bees often travel three to five miles to forage — so Fort Green and Prospect Park are well within reach of the bees on his block.

O’Neal started keeping bees in junior high in Ohio. He eschews a bee suit and veil, preferring long pants, a T-shirt and straw hat. Crouching down on the hot roof near the opening at the bottom of the hive’s box, where busy bees are flying in and out, he listens to the hum.

“The buzz you’re hearing, is within a hertz or two of middle C on a piano,” he said. That's the pitch that confirms his bees are happy bees.

He knows if his bees are mad that C will rise to a C sharp. “If you’ve ever played any kind of instrument, if you’ve been in a choir, you’ll notice it, it sounds a little bit crankier than this pleasant middle C buzzing.”

The city requires bee keepers to register their hives, but it doesn’t regulate how many are kept in each neighborhood.

Anthony Planakis knows the sound of cranky bees. He’s the NYPD officer who handles many of the city’s bee situations. The 18-year veteran has kept bees since 1977 and says there should be one hive per acre of green space.

And space is getting pretty tight now in the city.

When bees run out of flowers, “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,” he said.

While there have been confirmed reports of increased swarms since last year, Officer Planakis said the majority of the swarms he saw were from feral hives — not urban beekeepers.

If you see a swarm, call 311 or contact one of the bee keeping associations in the city, like Beekeepers Association or

Tim O'Neal with his rooftop beehives in Fort Greene.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Tim O'Neal with his rooftop beehives in Fort Greene. O'Neal tends 25 hives in the city.

Andrew Cote's rooftop hives at the York Prep School.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Andrew Cote's rooftop hives at the York Prep School.

 Mike Barrett's rooftop hives in Astoria, Queens. He built an awning for his bees for when it rains.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

 Mike Barrett's rooftop hives in Astoria, Queens. He built an awning for his bees for when it rains. 

Tim O'Neal with his rooftop beehives in Fort Greene.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Tim O'Neal with his rooftop beehives in Fort Greene.

Andrew Cote's honey stand at the Farmer's Market near Lincoln Center.
Stephen Nessen

Andrew Cote's honey stand at the Farmer's Market near Lincoln Center. 

Andrew Cote's honey stand at the Farmer's Market near Lincoln Center.
Stephen Nessen/WNYC

Andrew Cote's honey stand at the Farmer's Market near Lincoln Center.


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Comments [11]

James Fischer of NYC Beekeeping Dot org from Manhattan

Ms Woods:

You should contact Dr Karin Alton, Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton

She is working on applying some tangible metrics to your situation, and may help you to realize that concerns about "available forage" are better described as concerns about beekeeper education. Late supering and/or poor weather can explain your recent smaller harvests better than blaming the new beekeepers who, through no fault of their own, have fallen into the slapdash "classes" of profiteers who take their money and do not teach an adequate course. We face the same exact problem, so NYC Beekeeping dot org offers free remedial training.

In NYC we do have a tree inventory, but even a glance at a satellite photo shows the massive amount of trees and park acreage we have. And yes, we are planting more trees that provide quality nectar/pollen - likely hundreds of thousands more. But more important, we have a community of beekeepers that agrees that we can all coexist even if honey harvests are slightly lower. Except for one guy, who would likely have far larger honey harvests if he spent more time tending to his bees and less time courting the media.

So don't blame Bill Turnbull of the BBC for being a good spokesman for bees, pollinators and beekeeping, blame those who exploit novices for their personal profit.

Jun. 27 2012 07:24 AM

Hello from London. I am glad the debate in NY is widening on these important issues. I am not advocating restrictions but I am saying that the position may not be so rosy in the years to come. I hope it is but we have over 12,000 hives in Greater London and that has risen dramatically in the last few years. May I ask how NYC knows how many beehives there are ... I assume you have to register? And do you know what percentage of NYC is green space and then consider how much of that is planted in a way that benefits bees? Is there any governemnt body that records honey yields or advises on disease? There are more factors than avialable forage that affect honey crops, for sure, such as the weather. I am just saying watch out that the hobyyist beekeeper can still thrive when more and more companies pile hives onto thier rooftops. As Jen says 'more bees is fine' ... but for how long? We put this article about how wind affects the inhabitants of very urban areas and is a very intresting read when you think about how it might affect the small honeybee Our vibrant community of keepers has an excellent FB page and all are welcome.

Angela Woods
LBKA, Secretary

Jun. 26 2012 10:47 AM
James Fischer of NYC Beekeeping Dot org from Manhattan

One of the beekeepers interviewed proposed regulation of beehive density in NYC. Many members of do not agree at all.

There are more sources of bee forage in NYC than many realize. Most people don't know that trees are a more prolific source of nectar for pollinators than flowers. Tree blossoms are out-of-sight, so people don't notice bees foraging in trees. NYC Beekeeping is working with NYC's "Million Trees" program plant more types of trees that provide nectar and pollen for all pollinators. While there might be a theoretical limit to the number of hives that NYC can support, we are nowhere near that limit.

Why, then, the call for more regulation?

One beekeeper interviewed reported that his honey harvests were down. That is not the case for most of our members, but it was a very rainy spring that washed out many blooms. This call for regulation is not to protect bees at all, it's to protect honey production, sales, and profits. This is not about the welfare of bees, but about how hard the beekeeper must work to sell a pound of honey.

Obviously, if you are keeping bees for profit, you want to keep your honey production per hive high, hence the advocacy of limits on numbers of hives. But we don't think that such for-profit interests should be able to legislate themselves assured consistent profitability. The City includes the property of many people. If a beekeeper's bees fly and gather a nectar from his neighbor's flowers and the city's taxpayer-owned trees, how can he object to that same neighbor wanting a beehive?

Most of our members don't keep bees primarily for profit. Some keep bees to pollinate community gardens or roof gardens, some keep bees as pets (don't laugh, some people have aquariums!), some want honey for personal use, and others donate their honey to charitable causes, many keep them for education or research. Our membership's primary focus is on the welfare of the bees themselves, with profits from honey being a far smaller concern.

We believe that hive density will probably become self-regulating, as those who want high honey production will seek out areas with lower hive densities.

We agree with NYC DOHMH, that there is no need for new regulation. If limits someday are needed, it would be far more fair to limit the number of hives per beekeeper, which would assure better management and more attention given to each hive.

Finally, if we ever get to the point where regulation of hive density is considered, we think that the city should think carefully about what rights they are willing to take from one person and give to another. In this specific case of purely commercial interests, we are confident that the City is not about to legislate windfall profits for a few, while denying equal consideration to others.

Jun. 26 2012 12:01 AM
Yeshwant from Red Hook, Brooklyn

I have been a NYC beekeeper for the last four years and keep two hives. I think the question of providing adequate forage for urban hives is relevant, especially in the summer when most tree and spring blossoms are gone for the season. A few years ago, during the summer dearth, my bees were one of the several colonies that fed on red dye colored syrup from a Maraschino cherry factory in Brooklyn to produce the now infamous Maraschino cherry / Red Hook red honey (it was in the news).

I often ride to work past traffic islands, empty city lots, etc. that grow clover, dandelions, and other plants that provide forage to the bees, only to find a few days later that these plants have been mowed down as 'weeds', depriving the bees of important food sources. Bees in the city cannot live on tree and garden forage alone. They need these unplanned biodiverse oases as well.

Green roofs also can be an important source of pollen and nectar, depending on what is planted on them. My own green roof is quite light and shallow and hence mostly grows sedums that these European bees seem to have no interest in (the bumblebees and carpenter bees and assorted flies on the other hand seem to forage there quite happily).

Jun. 25 2012 03:37 PM
Sting me once... from America, North America, Earth

To claim there is not a problem based off a small sampling of current urban honey production could easily ignore changes in weather. How would a future drought affect growing honeybee populations? On the other hand, there could be economic reasons to cap the number of honey-producers in NYC. Rooftop gardening is another great implementation of sustainable urban farming practices, but I think it might be more complicated than just moving bees up from the ground. From what I have gathered, most bees range about 30 feet above the ground during foraging but this seems vaguely accurate. There are bees in the Himalayas and reports of bees moving up and down mountains as the bloom changes elevation, over time. Perhaps there is a species of honey bee that is more specialized for dwelling on top of tall structures. I think some beekeepers ought to seek out something like a National Science Foundation grant to investigate this. Bees apparently do not communicate vertical distances and it is currently unknown how a bee, following directions from the shaky-thorax dance (or whatever the entomologists call it), can differentiate between the top and bottom of a bush, or tree. It would be great to one day fly over a city and look down and see all the gardens flourishing in the formerly exclusive domain of air-conditioners, antenna, and what not. May your honey flow beekeepers, so that the blossoms will propagate!

Jun. 25 2012 01:53 PM
Jennifer Broekman

There's an obvious solution if the city is actually worried about a shortage of green space: train more people to maintain rooftop gardens & give grants for refurbishing buildings that need help to support them. The bees get more forage space, the city gets more air-processing, and the neighborhoods get more flowers and vegetables.

Jun. 25 2012 09:47 AM
Chase Emmons from New York City

Hello!  I operate the Brooklyn Grange Bees apiary in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  We have approximately 40 hives in the Yard and several at other locations around the city.  While at first we were concerned about the possible lack of forage for so many hives in one place, we've just realized our first honey crop and it's a whopper!  Each of our hives started with empty supers 6 weeks ago.  Yesterday we found that over 20 of them have full and capped supers of 25-30 pounds a piece.  That's at least 500 pounds in only 6 weeks!  One of our 2 year old hives at our Queens farm yielded approx 70 pounds last week all by itself.  Our Greenwich Village hive just yielded 40 pounds.
So we're experiencing a bumper early season crop, and expect it to continue for the rest of the summer.

Jun. 25 2012 09:03 AM
Jen from Chelsea

More bees is fine, there used to be many more before all these buildings, civilization killed them, this is a small percentage of what is sustainable. Worry about real things.

Jun. 25 2012 09:00 AM
T. Delancey

I'm with Tim O'Neal...NYC city isn't out of space for beekeepers...NYC Parks Dept alone tends 5 million trees across 29,000 acres of parkland...and this doesn't include backyard gardens and community think isn't enough for 200 hives? The author should have done some fact checking and questioned his guests a bit more.

Jun. 25 2012 08:56 AM
Paul D. Miller from NY, NY

As more rooftop gardens provide delectable flowers for the bees in NYC we will all bee better off.

Jun. 25 2012 07:20 AM
j lyden from nj

*tip of cap* for playing "no rain" by blind melon as the close for this story. so clever!

Jun. 25 2012 06:53 AM


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