The Life and Times of NYC’s Renegade Bee Man

06/02/2009 4:00 AM |

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.

Back in January, Councilman David Yassky tried to appease his Brooklyn constituency by 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.

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