Sweet Honey on the Block
For the first time in more than a decade, New York’s beekeepers are claiming their summer perches on the city’s rooftops. Bowing to a citywide campaign, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently removed honeybees from the Health Code’s register of “venomous insects” and other prohibited animals. Not surprisingly, the New York City Beekeepers Association saw a sizable bump in enrollment for its spring classes.
Yet without support from City Hall, it’s doubtful that we can return to anything like the pre-ban era, when hives could be found at city schools, on the roof of the American Museum of Natural History and even inside Radio City Music Hall.
The benefits of urban beekeeping are substantial. Despite the conventional view of the city as a slough of pollution, urban honey is likely to have significantly less chemical residue than commercial honey made beyond the boroughs. This is partly due to the high levels of pesticides in commercial agriculture and partly because small-scale beekeepers tend to use fewer drugs in the care of their hives than commercial operators.
Urban honey also has the potential to be a godsend for New Yorkers with allergies. Although the scientific studies are still lacking, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that the pollen in local honey helps people develop defenses against local allergens.
Then there’s the health of the city. Take the honeybees of East New York Farms!, an organization of urban farmers and neighborhood farmers’ markets. These Brooklyn bees pollinate crops for the entire neighborhood. They aren’t just making honey: they’re building community, creating income and employment and maintaining vital urban green space.
Local honey will benefit the health of the planet as well: minor transportation costs, no-fuss manufacturing (courtesy of the bees), minimal processing, simple recyclable packaging and centralized retailing provide a model of effective, low-carbon production and distribution.
Beekeeping isn’t as daunting as one might think. The humans require a bit of training, but bees are famously self-sufficient, needing little more than the right location, a supply of clean water, some feeding in spring and fall and a weekly inspection throughout the summer.
Nevertheless, there are still significant obstacles to city beekeeping, and it’s uncertain that, without the government’s help, it will reach beyond a relatively limited stratum of committed New Yorkers.
For one thing, unless you own your building, your landlord has to approve the hive’s installation, and he has to feel confident about the reactions of the tenants and the roof’s ability to support a 250-pound hive box. Then there are the costs: around $250 per hive, plus about $200 for the bees, the protective suit and other equipment. And even though the image of bees has softened in the wake of colony-collapse disorder, popular fear of bees is ever-present.
So what can City Hall do? For starters, like other cities in the United States and overseas, New York could support urban beekeeping through small grants, through tax incentives for both beekeepers and building owners, through public education programs and by getting hives into city schools as educational and perhaps fund-raising tools.
Beekeeping could also be promoted as a part of FoodNYC, a plan devised by Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, to support grassroots efforts like green rooftops and urban farming. These efforts are already altering the ecology and economy of the city in small ways; with the right citywide support, they could have a far greater effect.
As anyone who has studied a beehive knows, it’s an ordered, self-sufficient world, a reminder that nature is always in our lives, even in the middle of the city. And there is nothing quite like your first open-air taste of fresh, local honey, sparkling with flavor, straight from the source. More New Yorkers should get that experience.
Hugh Raffles is an anthropologist at the New School.