Flying Gold

Six-legged, hairy, around one-tenth of a gram in weight, and colored in various shades of striped black-yellow-brown-gold, bees are essential to the production of food for humans. These little insects date back 100 million years and have played a pivotal role in human diet throughout human history. Today wild and managed honeybees pollinate over one-third of all crops. Bees are estimated to contribute more than $15 billion annually to the U.S. economy and about $100 billion globally. Despite their central importance to our food chain and human survival, bees are endangered worldwide.

By 1987 bees in the United States began to struggle against an invasive parasite called the Varroa mite. A decade ago, colony collapse disorder (CCD), which caused entire colonies to disappear without a trace, emerged as another significant, and perhaps related, threat to bee populations. The origin of CCD remains unclear, but it is considered a multifactorial problem attributed to long-term habitat loss, monocultures, fungi, parasites, exposure to agrochemicals (including cocktails of common pesticides and a new class of systemic insecticides), genetically modified organisms, and poor practices of commercial beekeepers. Even with increasing public concern and conservation efforts, the decline of honeybees, amplified by the unsustainable practices of the dominant food system, food production driven by industrial and capitalist processes, remains a progressive and global issue. The public response, especially in cities like New York, has been a surge in the popularity of beekeeping in urban environments. The prevalence of backyard and rooftop hives has served to increase awareness and the proliferation of the species in urban habitats.

Liquid Gold in the Big Apple

Urban Beekeeping, New York, NY.  

In sprawling cities, the urban foodshed, a space devoted to local food procurement, plays an important role in providing fresh and nutritious produce. The attraction of being a locavore, one who consumes only locally produced food, has catalyzed a stark rise in the popularity of urban apiaries. After former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani banned beekeeping in NYC in 1999, bee supporters campaigned for more than a decade to remove honeybees from his list of “wild animals.”

Since 2010, when apiaries were legalized again, beekeeping in New York was transformed from an underground activity to an exceedingly popular pastime. According to the NYC Department of Health, ninety-nine beekeepers and 216 hives were registered in September 2014. NYC honey is often produced in high-rise locations, such as rooftops of the Waldorf Astoria, the Google offices, the Westin Grand Hotel, the York Preparatory School, and Regis High School on the Upper West and East Sides, respectively. High-rise honeybees forage in Central Park and on rooftop gardens. They also thrive in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as well as in the Bronx, on City Island and at prominent institutions such as Wave Hill and the New York Botanical Garden.

The Big Apple’s liquid gold varies by season and reflects the pockets of diverse plant life tucked away in green spaces. Honey from all five boroughs can be found in farmers’ markets throughout the city. While spring honey takes on a floral flavor from linden tree blossoms, a darker and more complex fall honey confirms the prevalence of Japanese knotweed and other late-blooming foliage.  

City Island Gold Apiary

Honeybee Education with Beekeeping Partners, New York, NY.

Patrick Gannon, who founded the Science Education Department at Hofstra-NS-LIJ School of Medicine, and his wife, neurobiologist and medical educator Nancy Kheck, are the proprietors of City Island Gold Apiary. Located close to Pelham Bay Park (2,772 acres), their apiary is an ideal setting for honeybees. As scientists and educators, they have made it their mission to provide public outreach (EPO) about honeybees and conservation; to train and mentor novice beekeepers; and to present programs and demonstrations at schools, community centers, and not-for-profit organizations. They conduct “Bee Whisperers’ Workshops” without protective gear. Working closely with the insects fosters an intuitive understanding of honeybee behavior, and hive management is generally conducted in shorts and t-shirts. In classes and in daily practice, “socially responsible beekeeping” is of prime importance. These workshops are practical, and they create an awareness of how humans impact the environment.

By educating New Yorkers about how their food is produced, City Island Gold Apiary turns consumers into co-producers. Many City Island residents used to employ pesticides in their gardens. The awareness that honey is produced from their own flowers and trees and a growing reliance on this honey as a naturopathic treatment for seasonal pollen allergies have changed the local culture: each year more residents shift from using chemicals to natural methods and convince neighbors to do the same.

These City Island beekeepers do not identify with the food justice movement, which is involved in fighting the dominant food system, yet some goals overlap. Both Gannon and Kheck strive to answer important research questions; for example, they have launched a clinical study to explain how eating natural local honey attenuates pollen allergies. By teaching about environmental stewardship and honeybees, City Island Gold Apiary joins stakeholders such as NYC Beekeepers Association and NYC Beekeeping to establish community and advocacy around sustainable beekeeping and the promise of pure, healthy honey. -S.M.