If you’re looking to move beyond the fire escape garden to something even more buzzworthy, consider the art and practice of beekeeping. Oh, but wait, it too is illegal! According to Article 161 in New York City’s Health Code, honeybees fall under the “wild animals” statute that also prohibits the possession of Komodo dragons, scorpions, cheetahs and, of course, Giuliani’s much-hated ferrets. Unlike those wild things, however, honeybees are naturally ubiquitous in New York, and we’re dependent upon them for their pollinating ways. (Yes, their stingers pose a problem for the severely allergic, but that is what EpiPens are for. My highly allergic mom, who grew up on a tree and plant nursery and is still an avid gardener, always carries one.)
Fortunately Brooklyn’s own councilman, David Yassky, is a proud supporter of legislation that will hopefully be passed for the sake of honeybees and their part in the city’s “growing niche food” industry. As I learned from Matthew Wills, a Brooklyn apprentice beekeeper who pens the aptly-titled blog, BQE Keeper, beekeeping is not as labor-intensive or high-maintenance as you may think. (It’s also relatively common — remember Richard Eagan?) With Wills’ much-appreciated help, here is a little Brooklyn Beekeeping 101 for those of you who are eager to get your hands in a honey pot, Winnie-the-Pooh-style:
Find Brooklyn Beekeepers
Although exact locations of most apartment rooftop or backyard garden beehives are kept on the DL, beekeeping group meetings and classes are not. The New York City Beekeeping Meetup Group, (formerly known as the Brooklyn Beekeeping Meetup until other borough residents swarmed on over and wanted in) is 324 members strong and organized by Fort Greene’s John Howe. “New Member and Newbee Hive Inspections” take place at his Brooklyn Bee Apiary, otherwise known as Howe’s rooftop. Classes are conducted at the Central Park Arsenal, but additional class space and a “teaching apiary” are, fingers crossed, in downtown Brooklyn’s near future.
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Wills is a “graduate” of the New York City Beekeepers Association’s 12-hour course (over 4 days in a month) on beekeeping basics, including hive construction and general apiary knowledge. According to him, when you happen upon a beekeeper, such as Andrew Cotes, a fourth-generation beekeeper whose father helped Martha Stewart with her bees for twenty years, don’t be afraid to ask if you can be an apprentice — most apiarists will want to at least tell you about their trade, if not borrow a set of hands once in a while.
The Beeginner’s Beekeeping Goods
So you want to do some beekeeping? According to Wills, you really only need a sunny outdoor space and about ten feet of flight path. Start-up costs will run you in the low hundreds, but if you plan on bottling and selling the honey, you could break even after a few harvests.
You can find “starter kits” from such catalogs as Mann Lake Ltd. and Brushy Mountain Bee Farms. And yes, in addition to ordering basic hives and beekeeper clothing, you actually buy the bees, usually about 3 pounds-worth (10,000-12,000) with the Queen bee herself arriving in a separate little box so that her worker bees get to know her chemistry, without attacking her. Bees for purchase online can easily be found by searching for “apiaries,” such as Edward Norman Apiaries in the South.
How Does Beekeeping Actually Work?
Briefly, once the initial set-up of the hive is completed, the bees do most of the work. During the warm months, one checks on the bees about every two weeks, looking for signs of disease and making sure the hive has a nice, healthy smell to it. While spring and summer make up honey-producing bee season, the bees are a-buzzing year-round, just to a more hibernating extent once temperatures fall below sixty degrees in the fall and winter. After sealing up the hive from mice for the winter, your beekeeping “work” is done, but luckily the Meetup still holds events like honey tastings and honey-themed potlucks. (This mead, called Brooklyn Buzz, will make an appearance at a Meetup soon if I have anything to say about it.)
Although there is no guarantee of honey harvest the first year around, honey is usually ready for the taking after the first month or two, or in late June. Average honey harvest for one hive in a location such as a Brooklyn backyard or rooftop garden ranges from 30-40 pounds in a given season!
If you find yourself waxing poetic about beekeeping (I promise I’m done with the bee puns!), sign the Legalize Beekeeping in NYC! Petition today!