Last March, New York City legalized beekeeping. Before that, beekeeping had been subject to fines of up to $2,000. For the estimated 200 to 300 beekeepers in New York City, it is a long awaited change in response to the national trend to bring back honeybees, which have been disappearing in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the trend has sparked interest in the local food movement, with rooftop and backyard honey selling out at farmers markets and neighborhood shops. That beekeeping was happening was already an open secret in New York. Now that it’s been legal for a year, hundreds of prospective beekeepers are poised to set up hives for pleasure or profit.
"Many people clearly said that they had held off on starting hives due to the illegality," says Jim Fischer during the weekly beekeeping class he teaches in Central Park. "There’s going to be a lot more bees."
Even before the beekeeping ban was lifted, Fischer, who runs the Gotham City Honey Co-op, saw a jump in attendance in his weekly beekeeping class, and enrollment this spring climbed from 80 to 110. Last April, Fischer and his students met in Brooklyn to learn how to assemble their hives and put together the equipment they ordered. The bees arrived in May, leading to about 100 new hives from his class alone.
A sister organization, the New York City Beekeeping Meetup, has more than 700 members. Another prominent group, The New York City Beekeepers Association, offers classes and talks, and helps aspiring beekeepers set up shop by lending out equipment. At the Sixth Street Community Center in the East Village, volunteer Ray Sage plans to put in its first rooftop hive this spring.
"I want to start and support them in every way," he says. And it is not only the bees he wants to support. He’s hoping the bees will help the center’s community garden thrive and flourish. Helping local farmers and gardeners with pollination is a goal of urban beekeeping. "It’s not about the bees," Fischer is quick to say. "Beekeeping is necessary to local food. It’s about the farmer and the gardener."
The Gotham City Honey Co-op is starting a true co-op program to help beekeepers extract and bottle their honey. "Everybody is going to be selling their own honey, but we will provide the space and the equipment," Fischer says.
Veteran beekeepers already race to keep up with the demand for local honey at farmers markets across the city. "I see a big demand for it," says David Graves, who sells his Rooftop Magic from hives on three Manhattan buildings at the Union Square Greenmarket. So many people are asking for local honey that Graves has limited the sizes he sells to 8-ounce jars. The same is true in other boroughs. John Howe sells his Fort Greene honey, from the three hives on his rooftop, online at The Brooklyn Bee, while Brooklyn Honey sells its rooftop honey at the Brooklyn Standard Deli in Greenpoint. Both harvests are sold out until fresh stocks are available in July.
Andrew Coté, president and founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association, sells honey, beeswax and pollen for allergies at the Union Square greenmarket. A fourth-generation beekeeper, his family has kept bees since the 19th century. Coté has hives on his rooftop in the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn. He likes to joke, "The honey was always legal, only the bees were illegal."
But he doesn’t see the movement growing exponentially. And while he supports legalizing beekeeping, he favors controls. "I believe it is going to lead to problems," he says. Coté, a professor at Housatonic Community College in Connecticut, says the new registration requirement is too lenient. The New York City Board of Health requires beekeepers to register their hives, but he thinks that courses should have been a required part of the process. "I hope we continue to grow responsibly," says Coté.