Illegal or not, bee and honey enthusiasts have been tending apiaries in the city for years. This March, however, they got their moment in the spotlight when the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene lifted the ban on beekeeping in the city. These newly legal kept-bees spent the short spring months gathering nectar. So now is the time to enjoy the fruits of their labors — spring honey.
Annie Novak, who runs Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and founded Growing Chefs, is one of the rogue beekeepers who maintained hives even before it became legal. Novak (pictured below) recently told WNYC's Amy Eddings that forging ahead despite the ban wasn't a problem, since it was "one of those wonderful laws that didn't make sense."
Honey bees, in particular the Italian variety that are legal to keep in the city, are not aggressive. That's what Ava Chin, the Urban Forager columnist for The New York Times' City Room blog, discovered this spring, when she came across a swarm of bees on The College of Staten Island's campus. "[The swarm] actually kind of looked like shwarma on a turning spit," Chin said. "You know to have this hanging cluster of 30,000 bees is really interesting because the cluster is moving and it's alive."
Novak's bees also swarmed this spring, surprising her Greenpoint neighbors. "It's actually a sign of a healthy hive," explains Novak. "When the bees are doing really well and have enough honey, it's their way of dividing and spreading." Nonetheless, she notes that she's going to take measures to avoid such a dramatic event next spring.
In addition to witnessing a swarm of bees in New York City, Chin and Novak both point out that local honey is useful in alleviating seasonal allergies. "You could liken it to a person who would choose to get a flu shot," explains Andrew Coté, the head of the New York City Beekeepers Association. "They're getting a bit of the flu virus getting injected into them. And they're building up an immunity to it. Eating local honey helps people build up an immunity to local pollen allergies."
Those looking to become apiarists need to beware: Bees don't like to be moved, so be prepared to commit several years to living in one place. Hives require time and attention, as well as knowledge about their springtime habit of swarming.
"I understand that in a city of 8.4 million that when there's a swarm of 25,000 potentially swarming bees, that it can be intimidating. But really the bees are at their most docile when they swarm," said Coté. "It's tough because there's not a centralized way to communicate with us at the New York City Beekeepers Association. We have a general email, many people have my number, but what we really need is to tap into something like 311, where people can be referred to us and that we could better handle it."
Here's New York Magazine's guide to honey, including honey produced by Cote and several other area apiarists.