May 6, 2010
After a couple years of consciousness-raising and political agitation by urban-agriculture groups, the New York City Department of Health has removed the honeybee from its index of forbidden creatures. Oh, freedom! No longer would beekeepers in the boroughs have to live furtively, fearing betrayal by neighborhood informants, their locations disclosed, their hives confiscated, their checkbooks garnished, their pacific hobby denied them by The Regime.
The prohibition against keeping honeybees in New York was a recent development. In 1999, presumably as one of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's Quality of Life initiatives, bees were added to the City Health Code's list of "wild animals" that are "naturally inclined to do harm and capable of inflicting harm upon human beings." The list, minutely detailed, includes whales, lions, Komodo dragons, Tasmanian devils, scorpions, and what was reputed to be Rudy's particular peeve-pet, ferrets.
I started keeping bees that same year, in a community garden on public property. I'd not heard of the official ban, and neither apparently had the officials. Horticulturists from the Parks Department periodically visited the garden and commended me for bringing pollinators to the blighted South Bronx. School groups, agricultural academics, and reporters from as far away as Germany and Australia came to watch the bees at work and sample their delightful honeys culled from the flora of the nearby parks and the banks of the Bronx River. In well-known community gardens where bees had been kept for decades, parks commissioners and even mayors took pride in posing for photos in front of beehives before whooping it up at the summer solstice festivities. Even people who kept bees on their own property were either unaware of or undaunted by the code; one fellow maintained hives at over a dozen sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn, appeared regularly on the local TV news, and sold his "Rooftop Honey" at upscale farmers markets, eight ounces for ten bucks. Occasionally, alerted by some disgruntled or paranoid neighbor, the city would shut down and fine a private beekeeper, but such instances were rare; there was no K.G.Bee surveiling the streets, hunting for hives.
Then someone unearthed the "bee law." It was right there in black and white, and it made urban-agriculture groups nervous. Their hope was to take beekeeping from a quirky novelty to a widespread practice, with bees as ubiquitous as broccoli in back yards and community gardens. But they could not move confidently toward their goal as long as that one word, "bee," was on the books.
Thus began the campaign to legalize beekeeping in New York City, a masterstroke of public relations working synergistically with the anxiety-provoking news of the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder that was more than decimating the honeybee population in rural areas. While petitioning the City Council and the Department of Health for hearings, beekeeping advocates staged photogenic rallies and parties, many of whose participants came dressed up as queen bees, sunflowers, and assorted vegetables. They also took to the talk shows, portraying honeybees as gentle, "domesticated" creatures and beekeepers as admirable outlaws, Clint Eastwoods in bee-veils, green subversives who brought pollination to plants and local honey to the allergy-afflicted despite the threat of interdict.
It worked. In March, the Department of Health excepted "non- aggressive honey bees" from the list of wild animals while requiring beekeepers to register their hives with the department and keep them in good order. Beekeepers could henceforth be fined for creating a substantiated nuisance, but no longer for simply harboring the insects.
Such a balanced ruling, without licensing, inspections, or other red tape, was a relief to veteran beekeepers, who feared not fines but fees and entanglement in the web of bureaucracy, to use an arachnid analogy.
The health-code change released a flood of pent-up desire to install honeybee colonies. The NYC Beekeeping Meetup Group, the largest of several local associations, has more than 700 members and this season sold bees and equipment to over a hundred novices. It is impossible to gauge how many others are setting up hives on their own.
The rush to beekeeping may have some negative consequences. With many more bees, there will inevitably be many more swarms — a natural collective form of reproduction where colonies divide in two and one of them takes off and temporarily gathers on a tree branch or fence while searching for a new home. Swarms are not dangerous, but uninformed citizens may think they are. There will also inevitably be more accidents and more incidents of stings.
The Meetup Group offers an intensive course on proper beekeeping practice and has a hot-line where experienced beekeepers talk novices through their uncertainties. Those who take their new hobby seriously will in time grow skilled in it, but what of those who lose interest and neglect their hives?
Keeping bees is not like keeping chickens, and in that respect, the old code had got it right: Honeybees are in fact not domesticated; they remain wild venomous insects, and if threatened are quite capable of inflicting harm upon human beings. They can be successfully managed, but they can never be completely controlled.
Cities like San Francisco and Seattle actively encourage beekeeping, and you never hear of trouble; perhaps the citizenry has learned to take swarms and stings in stride.
So send in the bees. There ought to be bees.
Don't bother — they're here.