Hive Mind

Hive Mind

Illegal beekeeping in New York City catches on

By Lessley Anderson

On a fall morning before work, 29-year-old Meg Paska climbs a rickety ladder, opens a trapdoor, and steps out onto the roof of her vinyl-sided row house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Set incongruously against the Manhattan skyline and the satellite dishes of neighboring roofs, a healthy cloud of honeybees swoops in and around two white box hives.

It’s illegal to keep bees in Brooklyn, Manhattan, or any of the five boroughs, but Paska is one of a growing number of New Yorkers doing it anyway. The New York City Beekeepers Association, a hobbyist group started a few years ago to provide new beekeepers with training and supplies, already has 180 members. New York City honey is showing up at area farmers’ markets and mainstream specialty food retailers. Paska, who does marketing and project management for a children’s clothing company, gives the honey to friends and sells it at a local market. Over the past few months, she has been contacted by scores of fellow Brooklynites wanting to see her hives and learn how to get started.

Like opting for a dachshund rather than having a baby, city dwellers choose bees because they are easier and take up less space than other urban farming operations, like, say, rooftop vegetable gardens. Amy Azzarito, a New York Public Library digital producer who lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, desperately wanted to keep chickens but had no backyard in which to put a coop. A friend in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, had roof access, so they got a hive together instead. “Bees are like the gateway agriculture crop in New York,” says Azzarito.

Pumping smoke into one of her hives from a metal canister stuffed with burning burlap and pine needles, Paska pulls a frame out with her bare hands, tapping it on the roof so the dense mat of bees, mellowed out by the smoke, falls off with a swoosh. The frame is packed with honeycomb. Paska’s neighbors are predominantly Polish immigrants who are used to backyard beekeeping in their native country. They aren’t bothered, she says.

“The only question I got was, ‘Will bees get into my AC unit?’” says Paska. (Answer: no.)

OUTLAWS AND HONEY
Beekeeping is legal in most U.S. cities and Europe (you can buy honey made by bees that live in hives on the roof of the Paris opera house). It was outlawed in NYC in 1999, when bees were added to a list of banned “wild animals” in the city’s health code, along with ferrets and, oddly, zebras.

The fear is not that the honey produced on the mean city streets will be poisonous; on the contrary, the vast majority of the flowering trees that NYC bees drink from (like acacia) are not sprayed with pesticides.