The reason for bees’ outlaw status, says Andrew Coté, president of the New York City Beekeepers Association and a fourth-generation beekeeper, is that bees scare people. But they shouldn’t: According to the USDA, the average person can withstand 1,100 bee stings. Only one or two people out of 1,000 are allergic to bee stings. But nearly everybody has a fear of bees, and large swarms of the insects can cause mass hysteria, which public officials tend to want to avoid.
In a grainy video shot a few years back by an onlooker, Coté is called in by the NYPD as part of a team to handle a swarm of bees attached to a tree in the blue-collar Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The Bed-Stuy incident was an example of what’s known in apiary parlance as swarming, a relatively common occurrence that can happen when the hive becomes overcrowded and half the population leaves, collecting on tree branches or even, in the case of urban environments, parked cars or light poles. Though the bees pose a threat to the public peace, they do not pose much of a threat to actual safety: When swarming, bees are engorged with honey and unlikely to sting. And urban beekeepers argue that with proper training, amateur beekeepers can prevent swarms altogether by checking their hives for overcrowding and manually splitting them when needed.
A spokesperson for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says that from the beginning of 2009 through August 31, 2009, 10 violations had been issued to people for harboring bees and wasps, but that the department didn’t have information on what the penalties for those violations were. Only one of the urban beekeepers CHOW spoke to had heard of anybody receiving a violation, and it resulted in a fine of a few hundred dollars. Still, a petition was circulated last year pushing for the legalization of beekeeping in NYC, and last June a Pollinator Week festival celebrated locally made honey and honey products.
“It used to be completely normal in this country, and it still is in Europe, to have a hive or two for the honey and for the pollination,” says Christine Lehner, a Hudson Valley beekeeper who, with her husband, keeps a handful of hives on friends’ roofs on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “It should be viewed as normal in New York City, too.”