New York City Health Code section 161.01, prohibits the keeping of animals "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm.” Since 1999, the statute has banned bee hives in all five boroughs, for the sole reason that bee stings can kill people who happen to be allergic to them.
In the same decade, beekeeping has taken on almost missionary momentum in places like San Francisco where the well-heeled splurge on locavore honey and amateur apiarists delight in the perception that they are saving the world. “Bees may well be at the crux of our existence — owing to their life-sustaining pollinating abilities,” wrote an enthusiast on Bay Area beekeepers’ site, sounding the general tone. “We contemplate how long (or short) we as a species would last without their planetary influence.”
New Yorkers share this verve. Whether due to planetary consciousness or culinary elitism, they believe in bees and aren’t letting 161.01 stop them from stashing hives where they can. They seek out pricey black-market honey in farmer's markets and even attend chic underground tastings — believing, in earnest, that New York honey must taste better. The more righteously defiant circulate petitions demanding amnesty for their rooftop hives.
Yet they tend to know little about keeping bees. For ten years, they've been forced to either teach themselves, or pay for workshops led by the self-taught. Their hives are not inspected. Keepers cannot be held to account for their condition because, legally, they don't exist.
When colonies of honeybees are ignored by their owners, they swarm. Come spring time, they split up into factions and take off looking for new digs. They soar through the city in a cluster, following wherever their queen's pheromones may lead them, careening through the sky like a doomful blob.
The upshot of all this has been less honey and more frenetic swarms, as the remnants of scattered or sick colonies buzz through the boroughs.
Jim Fischer knows them all too well.
When police ask the Bronx Zoo for help dealing with a swarm that’s popped up, say, in a newspaper box, the zoo calls Fischer. Errant hive fragments abound; he’s aware of several that have taken up residence high in tree cavities throughout Central Park.
When called, Fischer shows up in a mesh veil and removes the offending clusters using only a brush, his bare hands and a cardboard box. The swarm might then relocate to beautiful Long Island. They might find themselves in the care of a beekeeper that lives in the rectory of a Bronx church. No matter where they end up, the swarms go to work making honey and more bees. In this way, Fischer turns the wild and wayward into prolific homebodies. Twenty years ago, beekeeping was an almost mindless hobby, Fischer says. People would “have a hive out by the barn that they never thought about. Every six months or so, they'd go out and pull fifty pounds of honey out and that was that.”
In this era of colony collapse, keepers battle myriad Asian bee diseases and exotic mites. Fischer likens lazy keepers to mad syphilitics: their desperate charges contracting and communicating all manner of bee pathogens and parasites as they race toward their death.
Education is the key and Fischer dreams of a skyline oozing high-end honey – millions of healthy, prolific bees all operating under the banner of the Gotham City Honey Co-operative. So he’s raised a beekeeping army of his own.
introducing a bill to take honeybees off the city’s no-no ark. The bill sought to license beekeepers in the city creating a system with standards, regulations and penalties. The effort drew much fanfare and applause.
Now, with swarm season well under way, Yassky’s legislation sits in committee and bees remain as illegal as ferrets. His office remains confident that it will pass.
Right around the time that Yassky began legislating, Fischer gathered a group of 60 people in the Central Park Arsenal building for his first beekeeping lecture. The group shrank to around 30 regulars and continued to meet every Sunday. The two-hour classes covered every angle of the process through lecture, discussion and PowerPoint presentations As the spring wore on, Fischer continued to educate and equip a core of highly trained beekeepers. The most serious students invested $250 apiece in wooden hives, white canvas costumes, tin smokers and, of course, three pounds of bees. Some just showed up as the weather got warm with money and a willingness to learn as they went.
On a precious April afternoon, the co-op gathered in the cavernous lobby of the old Metropolitan Savings Bank on Flatbush Avenue. There, in a bright corner of the cold dark space, $7,000 worth of hive materials sat waiting to be assembled. Four months of preparation filled the lobby with a conspiratorial camaraderie, as though everyone present had some hand in an upcoming heist.
A 2008 Edible Manhattan article about a brief, $75 course in beekeeping offered on the Lower East Side smugly described the students as something predictable and haphazard: “tween community garden members pretending to look blasé, the facially pierced, some pre-gentrification hold-outs, and a few passers-by.” Fischer’s following appeared sophisticated by comparison. A psychiatrist named Yeshawant, a medical photographer named Vishnu, a laid-off financial securities trader named Carolina. Some planned to put their hives on upstate farms or country houses until the laws changed. Others carted their setup to their homes, some of which were, literally, in carting distance. The crew displayed courage and commitment to the cause. Fischer made it clear that they would have to wait a full year for their first honey harvest.
Though he has been unemployed for some time, Fischer charged nothing for his tutelage.
“Novices are taught for free” he replied to a suggestion that he might make a living teaching these classes. “It has been that way since 1200 B.C. Charging people money is a sin. It’s insulting to the entire tradition.”
He also knows he can’t build a vibrant citywide honey co-op alone.
“None of our native plants were pollinated by honeybees,” says Dr. John Ascher, who manages the Museum of Natural History’s Bee Database Project. “Not a single one from New York all the way down through the Caribbean.”
Ascher is regarded as the city’s bee guru — able to recognize and distinguish the city’s 226 species of native bees at a glance. None of the bees Ascher studies produce honey or do much for, say, commercial groves of apples and oranges. Some visit only a single native plant or flower. Others imitate bees that pollinate that single plant. Some of these imposters have gotten along as nectar thieves or bum parents, stashing their eggs in other bees’ underground nests. Most depend on nectar and pollen. Every one of them has had to compete with apis mellifera.
Nevertheless, Ascher is no honeybee hater. He considers beekeeping culturally valuable, educational and potentially lots of fun. He wonders about their urgency, however. “People aren’t growing large monocultures of crops in New York City,” Ascher said. “So, it’s debatable whether we need a wide-scale beekeeping operation.”
Fischer has met with local non-profits and gardeners who insist on the need. In talks with Just Food and East New York Farms (both of which are petitioning New York City to get on the bee wagon) Fischer argues that a lot of local vegetable crops just aren’t popping.
Moreover, he’s hoping to figure out a way to help manage and distribute solitary bees to smaller gardens. The Gotham City Honey Co-op’s website offers visitors the option of ordering bee eggs packed in tubes no longer than your arm — once keeping them becomes legal, of course.
In general, though, Fischer doesn’t care what motivates people to keep bees — something about the activity is just in him — and he wants it in others, too.
So he has been spreading the good news like a Pentecostal on a snake bender. When he’s not doing that, he checks in on hives kept on Long Island and on rooftops all over the city. He continues to develop and sell various gadgets for the expert beekeeper: an odorless repellant for safely harvesting honey, a sensor that monitors the comings and goings of bees at the hive entrance, etc. He also makes sure the Bronx Zoo’s African Bee-Eaters (little plumed birds with formidable beaks) stay well-fed.
If he came across a suitcase full of money tomorrow, Fisher would buy a house down in the Caribbean, he says. But there would still be one or two hives out back.
Keeping bees is just something he must do, he says.
"I was a bad physicist," he says. "So AT&T made me a manager." Fischer ran a team out of the company’s campus in Greensboro, North Carolina trying to develop a marketable version of UNIX. The company gave up — the operating system had already been widely distributed for free. One day, Fischer was told to close down his whole division, and received a nice lump of cash in exchange.
So he bought land in rural Virginia and taught himself to keep bees. Fischer knew nothing about bees when he moved to Virginia. He recalls his learning process as fairly straightforward. “You get a bunch of books and you read 'em. And you get confused because the books are contradictory. And you go to a beekeeping meeting and a bunch of old dudes laugh at you and say ‘Son, the books don’t mean nothin'; come with me.’ It’s a mentoring process. It has always been a mentoring process.”
He split every hive in sight each spring, doubling his yield, annually. By his 15th year in the business, he says he maintained between 500 and 600 hives. And then he started life all over again.
He keeps his reasons for leaving the farm to himself. “They’re personal,” he says. He will say that fate and romance lured him (a 48 year-old, hyperactive beekeeper) into a city whose laws forbade it.
Years ago, Fischer met a personal trainer named Joanne at a bee keeping convention. Just as things got bad in Virginia, she called him up and asked him to come to New York for a drink. “I came on a visit and never left,” he says. They married last July and live together on the Upper East Side. Soon after landing in New York, Fischer decided to turn back the clock.
At one time in Manhattan, and New York in general, legitimate hives buzzed in the unlikeliest places. Hospitals kept them to sting arthritics back to health and the Museum of Natural History maintained a few as a curiosity. Bricks of sweet comb sat outside swank offices at Radio City Music Hall and newly arrived Ukrainians relied on large stores of honey to stave off culinary homesickness.
In 1954, the New York Times ran a story announcing that F.W. Gravely, the sole proprietor of New York City apiary equipment, believed Manhattan to be bereft of hives. Urban beekeeping had all but dried up — a curiosity for the rich and bored out in the boroughs and ‘burbs.
It persisted as a hobby of sorts – falling in and out of fashion over decades. “Beekeeping is the Kilimanjaro of gardening,” Fischer says.
“I’m not done with you all,” he said. “I’m just giving you time to release your bees and give them a chance to build some comb.” By 5pm, Fischer sat alone in the cavernous room, accompanied by about fifty thousand bees whose owners couldn’t make it in that day. Never idle, Fischer took up a brush and began applying white paint to three “supers,” the hive’s boxy exteriors. He planned to lug the trio up to the roof tomorrow, fill it with bees and use it as a teaching device for all those who had missed the class. In a year’s time, if the weather behaved, the hives would swell with a fat man’s weight in honey.
He and his wife hoped to take it easy in this early lull – he had been so busy. Fischer hoped that things would quiet down until the bees had drawn out comb from wax frames and they began building up their brood.
His exhaustion shone through in the quiet — as though he drew his wiry energy from answering an endless stream of questions. Fischer’s solitude did not last long. He was interrupted by the arrival of a stranger named Mike Hegedus. The trim young Brooklyn dad entered the room pushing his toddler in a pink stroller. Hedegus had learned to keep bees in a Midtown community garden back in 2004. A couple years later, he moved into a brownstone in Bed-Stuy and put them out back — the perfect spot. He had maintained his colony for five years without incident. Until today.
“My bees swarmed this morning,” Hedegus said in a tone one might use to admit he had poured water into his gas tank in the hopes of cleaning it. He had done everything right, he told Fischer. Last week, he even added an extra box to his hive, so the bees wouldn’t feel like they were out-growing the place.
“Oh shoot,” Fischer replied, setting down his paint brush and placing his hands on his hips. Hedegus’ swarm had flown the coup only to settle, in a buzzing cloud, onto a stump in his neighbor’s yard. He had called and left messages, with no reply. Fischer suggested hopping the fence.
“You gotta grab the queen,” Fischer said. “Have you ever picked up a queen before?”
“No,” Hedegus answered.
“Oh shoot,” he said, again. “Have you got a brush and a cardboard box?”
Fischer finally prescribed a wholesale scooping motion. “Just start gently brushing them into box,” he said. “As many as you possibly can.”
Once Hedegus had the queen, the rest would follow her scent – a kind of entomological chess game.
Hedegus’ shoulders dropped a bit. He had been bitten on the lip last week – right on the lip. He did not look forward to this new chore.
For Fischer, Hedegus’ dilemma represented the principal challenge of urban bee keeping. “Swarm control,” he boomed for emphasis into the nearly empty room. “Swarm control, swarm control!” Swarming happens when queens get old or their colony grows too large for its hive space. Workers put the elder queen on a diet to slim her down in the hopes that she’ll fly off with half the population to begin anew. This usually occurs with the arrival of a newer, younger queen.
The swarm might stop off anywhere as it searches for an appropriate home. They’ve shocked pedestrians by landing in a clump on busy city streets and wigged out homeowners who come home, one day, to find honey bleeding through their walls. There are numerous ways to hedge against swarming –none of them foolproof. For Hedegus, it was too late. The young father wondered what chance his remaining bees had of raising a queen from their brood.
Not much, Fisher said: “Right now there aren’t really enough hives in New York City to gamble with allowing the queen to go out and mate.”
When queens are born, they leave the hive for two or three days and mate with drones from other colonies, collecting enough sperm in that orgiastic stint to lay thousands of eggs a day for years to come. The drones don’t make out so well, their sex organs break off inside her and they fall to the ground, dead. An undersexed or inbreeding queen will produce shitty brood, dooming the hive. Because hives in the city are few and far between, a homegrown virgin queen in New York City is unlikely to find a decent bunch of dudes.
Fischer suggested breaking the hive up into a few colonies and buying a couple of new queens. “Cheapest thing a bee keeper can buy is a queen,” he said.
Fischer urged Hedegus to experiment. “I’m speaking from a commercial perspective where you really don’t want to take any chances,” Fischer said. “Hobbyists have a great opportunity to experiment.”
That night, Hedegus went home and scooped up his bees — easy as pie.
Days later, a foreign swarm settled high into a tree in his backyard. And then another. Hedegus couldn't resist. He managed to grab the first bunch, setting the bees in box while he raced to put together his second backyard hive. By the time Hedegus settled the surprise swarm in their new home, the second bunch flew off into Brooklyn to become someone else's problem — or prize.
Illustration Ilana Kohn