August 23, 2007
It’s the summer of the honeybee.
In my eight years of keeping bees, I’ve not seen such intense interest in these insects as I have this season. Enticed by best-selling books like The Secret Life of Bees, people have become enamored; alerted by apocalyptic media coverage of the disappearing bees, people have become concerned. Local folks see me at work with my three hives at Genesis Park Community Garden and shout over the fence, "Hey, Mistah, what’s happening to the bees?" Reporters Google "Beekeeping New York City," find something written by me or about me, and track me down for interviews. Photographers and film-makers documenting unusual aspects of urban life lug over their cumbersome equipment and shoot closeups of the un-self-conscious creatures going about their work and long-shots of the self-conscious beekeeper in coveralls and veil, pacifying the hives with smoke. The talks and gloves-on workshops that I give to community gardeners and to visitors at Wave Hill, the forested mansion overlooking the Hudson River in the Bronx, always fill up quickly.
Children are particularly attracted. Last Thursday the Bronx Helpers, a neighborhood youth organization, brought a dozen rambunctious pre-teens to the garden for a beekeeping demonstration. When they arrived, they were twitching in panic, batting away flies and yellow-jackets and screeching in fear of stings. Two hours later, after I’d opened a hive and brought combs thick with docile and disinterested bees right in front of their faces, they left with a new, positive attitude toward the honeybee.
Last Friday I brought some equipment and an observation hive - a slim wooden box with plexiglass sides for viewing the bees at work on their combs - to Camp Kiwi, a suburban summer refuge 50 miles north of here. Kids and counselors alike were fascinated, seeing for themselves what they’d read about in school and watched on the Discovery Channel. I felt a bit ashamed that some of the children knew more about bees than I do.
The growing interest in the local-foods movement brings people to the garden to taste and buy honey. Last week, Santa Cruz surfer-turned-restaurateur Jim Denevan featured it in complement with cheeses and wines from Long Island at his annual gourmet dinner to benefit New York urban farmers. Allergy sufferers claim near-miraculous cures from daily doses of honey made in their vicinity - theory has it that honey made from the same flowers that provoke their allergic reactions acts as a natural antidote.
Others come to learn about beekeeping first-hand, hoping to set up a hive or two in their back yard or community garden, or even to try a career at it. On Saturday a Haitian man and his eleven-year-old son helped me harvest honey and extract it from the comb. The son was serious and attentive, wide-eyed with wonder; the father was practical and inquisitive about equipment and hive-management; he and a partner envision a large beekeeping operation in Haiti.
I spent the first week of August at the annual convention of the Eastern Apicultural Society, held this year at the University of Delaware at Newark. A couple hundred beekeepers from Maine to Florida, from Long Island to Iowa, gathered to hear scientists discuss the latest diseases, mead-makers and chefs share their honey-based recipes and give generous tastings, and craftspeople demonstrate making candles, soaps, and tinctures of propolis.
Usually I can’t stand conventions, but this one was different. There is something about honeybees that shapes the people who work with them and brings them together in a kind of shared priesthood, mediating the natural and the human. Beyond all the science - the experts reported they still aren’t sure why the bees are disappearing - and the practicalities - how best to purify beeswax for making candles - were the lunchtime conversations that sometimes bordered on the mystical. A wizened career beekeeper from upstate New York, after recounting his woeful experience with bears ("They outsmart even electric fences to get at that honey. I tell you, Winnie the Pooh they ain’t"), concluded, "Still, I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I love working with the bees in the apple orchards in spring - open sky, fresh air, smell of blossoms. Nothing better." A young marine archaeologist from Delaware told me that when she decided to start beekeeping last spring, she set up an empty hive-box in her back yard and was about to buy a colony from a local bee farm when a swarm of wild bees came out of nowhere, found the box, and settled in. Next month she’s having a priest bless them.
At the whimsical social event called the Bee Bawl, where prizes are awarded for the best bee costume (imagine that happening at a wasp convention), the group celebrated almost a dozen wedding anniversaries of couples who had met at the convention in years past. Two engagements were also announced.
It’s the summer of the honeybee.