For Hives and Honey In New York City; Rooftop Beekeepers Defy Law to Get That Sweet Central Park Bouquet
By Glenn Collins
Copyright The New York Times Company
July 15, 1999, Thursday
The setting -- the rooftop of a brownstone on West 113th Street in Manhattan -- hardly evoked the lazy bee-hum of rusticity. Looming to the north was the brick bulk of Butler Library at Columbia University. To the southeast jutted the latticework scaffolding of the ever-unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Suddenly, the swirl of bees hanging around two honeybee hives formed a cloud about the heads of four of the brownstone's inhabitants, Jill Laurie Goodman and her three children, urban beekeepers all. ''Just look at them,'' Ms. Goodman said proudly of her bees, as if she were acknowledging a blue-ribbon Charolais steer at the county fair. ''Aren't they amazing?''
If pigeon-fancying was the rooftop recreation of choice during the ''On the Waterfront'' era, urban beekeeping is poised to become a hot new bull-market avocation. Two summers ago, David Graves, a veteran bee master who was on the roof helping Ms. Goodman tend the hives, knew of just one beehive in the five boroughs: now he is aware of 13 hives in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. And city beekeepers claim that there could be twice that number.
But few beekeepers reveal their presence because under the New York City Health Code the activity is illegal. Section 161.01 bans keeping animals that are ''wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm.'' An offender could be fined up to $2,000.
''By nature, bees are wild, and people are in danger of being stung,'' pointed out John Gadd, a spokesman for the city's Department of Health. ''And for those who are allergic to bees, it's a-life-or-death issue.''
But like many other beekeepers, Mr. Graves -- a veteran hive master from Becket, Mass., who introduced Ms. Goodman to beemania two summers ago -- contends that honeybees rarely sting when they are away from their rooftop hives, which are locked and inaccessible to pedestrians. ''A ban on bees is like a ban on nature,'' he said.
Mr. Graves has become the Johnny Appleseed of New York beedom. Four days a week, the 49-year-old farmer visits New York to sell home-produced honeys, jams, jellies and maple syrups from his Berkshire Berries cart. For six years he has been a fixture in the Greenmarkets at Union Square, the World Trade Center and West 77th Street at Columbus Avenue.
Two years ago, to increase the supply of his signature offering, New York City Honey, Mr. Graves began establishing hives on buildings owned by sympathetic New Yorkers. He maintains the hives, trains the owners to be beekeepers and gives them some of the honey as rent. The rest goes into his golden bottles, emblazoned with yellow-and-blue labels proclaiming his product ''Beelicious.''
Whether the Health Department plans any queen-bee busts is unclear. Last month the agency faced the rage of a group called New York City Friends of Ferrets when it adopted a list of more than 150 animal species deemed unfit for urban living.
''What is this administration going to do next, ban calico cats?'' demanded City Councilwoman Kathryn E. Freed of Manhattan.
As for honeybees, the Health Department ''has no idea what it's talking about,'' said Peter J. Solomon, a Manhattan investment banker and former Deputy Mayor for Economic Policy and Development, who has kept bees for 21 years at various country homes. ''It's ridiculous to say they are dangerous.''
Some bee authorities concur. ''I disagree with the city's rating of the bees as a threat, though I can understand the city's concern,'' said Dr. Michael S. Engel, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History. ''Honeybees won't hurt you unless you grab them, or go after their hive. They are docile and just want to go about their business of gathering pollen and nectar.''
Furthermore, Dr. Engel contended, no ban ''can get rid of bees as a threat in New York'' because the city is home to millions of indigenous bumblebees, sweat bees and wood-boring carpenter bees, none of them raised by humans. Beyond that, yellow jackets are more dangerous than honeybees, Dr. Engel said, adding, ''Wasps are aggressive hunters looking for the kill.''
As for the allergy question, ''If people are allergic to bees, they shouldn't be beekeepers, but that shouldn't mean that other people can't be beekeepers,'' said Ms. Goodman of Morningside Heights. ''Some people are allergic to peanuts, but that shouldn't stop stores from selling peanuts.''
All right, but why beekeeping? ''After you do it, everything else in life is calm,'' said Mr. Solomon, the investment banker. ''Let me tell you, 40,000 bees will teach you the power of concentration and patience.''
But in the Big Apple? ''I suppose I had some leftover farming yearning from the 60's,'' said Karen Lamberti, who has a hive on the roof of her East Harlem brownstone at 101st Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. ''This is a way to do a bit of farming in the city.''
Others have culinary motives. Carl Redding, 35, hopes for ''a New York honey harvest for our Spicy Honey Chicken,'' he said. The dish is a specialty of his Harlem establishment, Amy Ruth's Restaurant. With Mr. Graves's help, Mr. Redding ensconced a hive on the roof of the restaurant, at 113 West 116th Street near Lenox Avenue, and tends the honeybees. ''I also think it's important to teach kids from our neighborhood about farming,'' said Mr. Redding, who was the chief of staff for the Rev. Al Sharpton before the restaurant industry beckoned, ''so they'll know that honey is made in hives, and not in the supermarket.''
Ms. Goodman, a 50-year-old lawyer who is the counsel to the New York State Judicial Committee on Women and the Courts, decided that apiculture was the bee's knees after she happened upon Mr. Graves's farm stand at the Greenmarket. She noticed his demonstration beehive carrying the sign: ''We are very gentle. We'd like to share our New York City honey. Do you have a rooftop?''
Ms. Goodman was intrigued. She then consulted her husband, Melvin Jules Bukiet, 45, a writer whose most recent novel is ''Signs and Wonders.'' ''I said I could think of nothing more terrifying, but this seemed to be a fascinating terror,'' he recalled.
Now she and her children -- Madelaine, 15, Louisa, 13, and Miles, 11 -- have set up a second beehive, their own, and enjoy beekeeping together.
''It's great because you can leave your tensions behind,'' Ms. Goodman said. ''Honeybees are truly amazing creatures when you get to know them. We have such a complex relationship with them: we care for them, and provide them with a home, but we have no idea where they go. They have this whole mysterious life out there in the city.''
Less theoretically, her daughter Madelaine volunteered, ''If you spend time with them, they're furry and really cute.''
The city's urban bee mavens inhabit their own entomological universe, sharing useful information about mite cures or re-queening protocols (that is, replacing a jaded queen bee). As might be expected, they are also given to apiary humor. There are puns about the, well, plight of the bumblebee and requests to ''lend me your comb''; and, yes, there are questions about whether to bee or not to bee. Mr. Solomon, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, has been known to tell hive masters that he has a degree from ''the Harvard bee school.''
On a recent afternoon on her rooftop, Ms. Goodman unhinged the hive cover and she and Mr. Graves began examining the individual wooden bee frames, wedging out big pieces of honeycomb. Being from New York, it boasts a bouquet that is ''more floral -- sweeter -- and has a lighter taste,'' said Mr. Graves. He noted that the bees forage in Central Park, at rooftop planters, outside florists' shops and in community gardens, rather than at upstate clover fields or deep-South orange groves.
But it isn't the easiest thing in the world to sweet-talk skeptical New Yorkers into buying urban honey for $5 a pound. ''You would think that New York honey might have a rather strong flavor,'' said Judith Cramer, a computer-science teacher who had stopped by Mr. Graves's cart at the Union Square Greenmarket specifically to buy New York honey as a gift for a friend who lives in England.
''Actually, it's rather sweet,'' Mr. Graves said.
''No, you'd think that New York honey would be quite aggressive as far as honeys go,'' Ms. Cramer said with a laugh. ''You know, it's the honey that says, 'What's it to you?' '' She happily bought a bottle.
''I think honey could be a great cash crop for New York,'' said Mr. Solomon, who, when he was Deputy Mayor under Edward I. Koch, suggested passionately -- and unsuccessfully -- that commercial apiculture would be a novel way to revitalize parts of the South Bronx.
Back on the roof, Mr. Bukiet sighed as he surveyed the spectacle of his wife and children poking into their two big-city beehives.
''You raise your children in Manhattan, you think they'll be the ultimate urbanites, and instead you get a bunch of naturalists,'' he said, deadpan. ''Where did I go wrong?''
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