The Secret Life of New York Bees

The work is hot and often painful, but according to its practitioners, it’s absolutely addictive. WNYC’s Kate Hinds went out to discover the secret life of New York’s bees.

» Urban beekeeper photos

REPORTER: Sidney Glaser is getting ready to check in with 40,000 residents of Hell’s Kitchen. Although he says they’re quite gentle, they do have a bad reputation in some circles, so he’s armed himself with protective gear and keeps his smoker at the ready.

SG: We’re going to take the bricks off, we’re going to take off the outer cover, the inner cover, we’re going to lift one or two frames to see what the bees are doing as far as constructing cells.

REPORTER: Glaser oversees the Clinton Community Garden Beehive, which last year produced a record 190 pounds of honey. He became the garden’s beekeeper in 1995, after doing similar work with the Peace Corps in Paraguay. He’s been intrigued by bees ever since.

SG: They’re fascinating insects, you know, absolutely fascinating. There’s all the functional aspects of it, you know, but I just look at it as—it’s just a great thing to do.

REPORTER: Glaser is assisted by Mike Hegedus, who recently relocated to Manhattan from Canada.

MH: I’m an actor. So I have a lot of time to keep bees, which is great.

REPORTER: He began volunteering at the garden primarily to get involved with his new neighborhood.

MH: The second reason was I had just started taking dance classes, and I heard honeybees love to dance. And they do have a little dance that the scout bees have when they go back to the hive—the zig zag and the round dance—are those the two dances, Sid?

SG: A figure eight and a round dance.

MH: Right.

REPORTER: Bees use movement to convey information to each other—like the distance to a good nectar source or a potential location for a new hive. And perhaps the phone number of a good lawyer, because New York City Health Code prohibits the keeping or harboring of bees. Luckily for the bees, it’s not often enforced: a spokesperson for the city said that the Health Department issues less than five violations per year on this section of the code. Even so, some people contacted did not want to speak on tape for fear of a summons.

Sitting on the steps of a major government building talking about urban beekeeping might feel subversive, if one were in New York City. But this is Boston, where beekeeping is not only legal, but encouraged. Al Carl is an apiary inspector for the state of Massachusetts.

AC: Well, the state statutes and regulations are designed to benefit beekeepers.

REPORTER: His job is to educate beekeepers and make sure their hives are disease-free. And he’s also happy to advise urban beekeepers looking to pacify their neighbors.

AC: Often, though, I mean, my suggestion to beekeepers is to paint their hives inconspicuous colors, say, dark greens, browns.

REPORTER: If camouflage fails, there’s also bribery.

AC: Give them a little honey.

REPORTER: This tactic might be very enticing in New York, where Laurel Rimmer says that her Bronx honey has the delicious and complex flavor of…only the bees know for sure.

LR: We would call it wildflower honey, which means you’re not really sure what it’s coming from. But very often it’s linden trees, which bloom in June. It could be black locust trees or sophora trees, and any of the flowers in our gardens, or one to five miles away.

REPORTER: Rimmer is the Garden Interpretation Manager—and resident beekeeper—at Wave Hill, which has four hives it uses for educational programs. She’s also the of area beekeepers.

LR: I’ve had a number of people who call to say they are new to New York City and they’re immigrants, or they’ve come from someplace else and they were a beekeeper in their own country and they want to do beekeeping now, can I put them in touch with someone who’s doing beekeeping or tell them a little bit more about what’s happening in the city.

REPORTER: She also fields calls from people looking to buy New York City honey, which she says is in high demand.

LR: …Especially people with allergies have been told that if you eat local honey, the pollen in the honey helps to relieve your allergies of those same plants. So when we have honey for sale it goes very quickly, and people love to buy it.

REPORTER: Nationwide, bees are valued for much more than their honey—they are one of nature’s great pollinators. With America’s honeybee population decimated by mites and disease, billions of dollars of crops that rely upon bees are under threat. This year alone, California almond growers spent $50 million to rent beehives for their orchards.

While other states are scrambling to encourage people to keep bees, the city says there are no plans in the works to revoke the prohibition against beekeeping in the five boroughs. But for New York beekeepers like Sid Glaser, the joys outweigh the risks.

SG: It’s hot, it’s sweaty, it’s painful, it’s dirty, and it’s just delightful.

For WNYC, I’m Kate Hinds.

» Wave Hill
» Clinton Community Garden
» Cornell University’s bee page
» Where to buy NYC honey online