When I visited Montreal a few weeks ago, I noticed immediately that the city, which is full of gardens and public planted spaces, had a booming bee population. But I was surprised to see that so many people were swatting at the bees as if they were pests. I thought it was common knowledge that a bee only stings when provoked! Swatting at a bee is just as stupid as walking up to a coyote and throwing rocks at it. If the bee is minding his own business, just leave the little dude alone.
Bees play a HUGE role in the agricultural system. Without honeybees to pollinate our plants, our tomato plants and corn stalks and bean vines would not produce any food. That's why the mysterious death of so many bees in the last 4 years is such a scary phenomenon: less bees in the world ultimately means a lot less food.
Up until March of 2010, keeping bees in New York City was actually illegal. Bees were seen as a danger to the community, especially in a city where buildings are so close together that your neighbor's beehive would essentially be your beehive. But after years of dealing with the dwindling bee population, and the support of Michelle Obama installing a beehive at The White House, the laws have changed and beekeeping is now in full swing in NYC!
I met Tim O'Neal, a beekeper who raises bees just a few blocks away from FarmTina in Brooklyn- I like to think that it's his bees who have been pollinating my plants! Tim answered all of my questions about beekeeping in the city, and he even teaches a class on the subject at Brooklyn Brainery. Registration is still open if you'd like to sign up- classes start September 29th.
Tim's partner in crime Philippe and their rooftop apiary
FarmTina: The first question I think everyone wants to know... WHY?! Why beekeeping? And why do it in a place like Brooklyn?
Tim: I grew up in the country with parents who were very interested in growing and purchasing local, organic, and sustainable food. Going to get honey was my favourite trip, and every time we visited that beekeeper, I would pester him with questions- how do they make honey, how do they fly, does it hurt when they sting you, do you have names for them all, etc, etc, etc. By the time I was in Middle School, I knew that I wanted to do it for myself, so I did. With my dad's help, I purchased the gear, ordered some bees through the mail (which is a story in and of itself), and got to work.
When I moved to New York, beekeeping was still illegal and I missed it terribly. My dad now takes care of our hives in Ohio, and he would send me pictures, ask me for my input, and I would help him out every time I went home, which kept me interested so that as soon as it was legalized, my neighbor (who is also a beekeeper) and I ran out the door and set up an apiary. Urban beekeeping has introduced me to a whole new set of challenges to and is really motivating me to continue learning and honing my skills.
I also really like honey.
FarmTina: I'm interested in the myths surrounding bees. People swat at them and fear them, and usually don't realize how important they are. Thoughts?
Tim: The fear of bees is something I find myself addressing more often than any other aspect of beekeeping. It seems that many people call anything that's yellow, black, and stings a bee, as in "OH GOD A BEE GET IT AWAY FROM ME!!!" As a beekeeper, I find this frustrating. Spend some time with honeybees, and you'll learn that while yes, they are capable of stinging, they usually won't and when they do, it is because YOU have done something foolish to prompt defensive behavior. Unlike wasps, yellow jackets, or hornets (all of which are often confused with bees), honeybees can only sting once, killing them in the process. Every sting is one less worker for the hive, so there is a strong incentive to use the sting only as a measure of last resort.
I think that if people realized how important bees are to our modern lifestyle, they'd be much more careful about swatting away blindly. In North America, 1/3 of ALL the food we eat relies on the honeybee for pollination. That's a massive percentage, and with the recent rise of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and the variety of other diseases they are prone to, honeybees need all the help they can get to maintain their population.
FarmTina: Tell me about your set up- your apiary.
Tim: A standard hive consists of a base board, two deep 'brood chambers' containing 20 frames, which is where the bees live, work and raise their young, and an inner and outer top cover to protect them from the elements. These hives have to be situated in a well thought out location- permanent (thats important, sorry renters), with good access to food sources (think community gardens and parks), and safe (from animals, especially other people.)
In terms of personal equipment, a bee veil is very important, as it protects the face and neck from stings (bees are very curious and tend to find their way into noses and ears unless precautions are taken.) A smoker to calm the bees and a hive tool to pry apart stuck hives and frames are also vital. A full bee suit is nice, as are gloves, but as you practice and get more comfortable, you'll find yourself using them less and less. These days, I work in a veil and a long sleeve t-shirt. Bee suits are hot, and gloves can be a hindrance, especially for delicate work.
FarmTina: How did you learn how to do it? How much dedication does it require?
Tim: I learned about the practical aspects of beekeeping as I went along, but I was lucky to have been exposed to it for years before I picked up a hive tool. I also did a lot of reading and research, which is VITAL.
As with any hobby, the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it. I've been keeping bees for over 13 years and I'm still learning about new techniques and practices. I’m a big fan of and strongly recommend The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile for people who are looking to get started.
The nice thing about beekeeping is that it isn't a prohibitively expensive hobby. A beginners kit, from Dadant or BetterBee, which includes all the equipment needed by a new beekeeper is under $300 dollars, and the bees themselves are only $60-$70.
I think that beekeeping is a hobby that is open to anyone willing to learn it. There are a few caveats, of course. A deep brood chamber full of honey and bees can weigh up to 80 pounds so a strong back or a strong assistant is necessary, and of course it's not a good hobby for people with allergies to bee stings.
The class I'm teaching is intended to provide a basic understanding of the science behind beekeeping and bee behavior, as well as a working knowledge of practical beekeeping. While we won't spend time in the apiary working with the bees, I hope that I will be able to share enough knowledge and enthusiasm to give anyone taking the class the motivation to keep on learning and try it for themselves once they felt they were ready.
FarmTina: Is it dangerous? You know, bee stings and whatnot...
Tim: Bees do sting, it's true, and no one likes getting stung, but with a good amount of knowledge, practice and the appropriate safety equipment (veil, smoker, gloves), you can minimize the chances of getting stung hugely. In the last decade, I've probably been stung 20-30 times. I try not to worry about it. It hurts, but not for long, and I feel that almost every sting is avoidable with good technique and a bit of care. Remember that honeybees die when they sting, so they only do it as a last resort and if they are extremely alarmed.
FarmTina: Tell me about the noise the bees make... I love when big groups of bees are humming!
Tim: It really is a great sound. It's very satisfying to put your ear up to a hive and hear the low, steady hum of your bees hard at work. That buzz is the sound of all the bees in the hive doing their various jobs- evaporating water from nectar to make honey, keeping the brood warm, ventilating the hive to keep the temperature constant and distribute pheromones, and more.
It's also an indicator of the mood of the bees. If I hear the pitch of the hum go up suddenly, I know that something has spooked the hive and I'll start to look for a cause. If the hive starts off high pitched, I might decide to check on them another day or keep my manipulations short and specific to the task at hand. Bees can be a bit moody, and they are much more fun to work with when they are happy.
The pitch of the humming is also a useful tool in identifying Africanized Honey Bees (AHBs). The wingbeat hum of AHBs is about 290Hz (or, for the musically inclined, the D above middle C), whereas the European Honey Bee (EHB) averages out to about 260Hz (middle C, right on the money). An experienced beekeeper may be able to identify dangerous or aggressive bees by ear alone.
FarmTina: What are the most ideal conditions for beekeeping?
Tim: Bees are beautifully adaptable and have found a niche on every continent other than Antarctica. Different communities and locales favour different ‘races’ or breeds of bees. In New York City, with our hot summers and cold winters, ‘Italian’ bees are the most popular breed, as they are in most areas and with most commercial beekeepers. The ‘Milwaukee Hygienic’ Italian Hybrid and ‘Russian’ bees do very well in our climate, although I have no experience working with the Russian variety.
Finding a good location is probably the most difficult aspect of keeping bees in the city. Most importantly, you have to find a location where the hive can stay for the long term- which is hard for people like me, who rent. You also have to consider the proximity of the hives to good food sources- the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and Prospect Park, in my case. It’s also very important to consider your neighbors and their well being when placing a hive. A commonly cited problem is bees using a neighbor’s kiddie pool as a water source if you don’t provide one of your own, which invariably leads to frightened children and cranky neighbors- unless you talk to them first, and educate them about the importance (and general good nature) of bees. Maintaining a ‘Good Neighbor Policy’ is much more important in the city than it is in the country, where your closest neighbor may be a mile away.
You also have to consider aspects such as shade coverage, air drainage, and wind protection for the winter, all of which play a part in how productive your bees are and how healthy they stay.
FarmTina: Have you found an active beekeeping community in NYC?
Tim: I’m finding more and more about it and I’m working to become more active. Until the recent legalization of beekeeping in the city, many local beekeepers kept their activities on the down low, and some continue to do so. There is, however, a well established and burgeoning beekeeping community in NYC. The most well known local organization is the NYC Beekeepers Association (NYCBA). They hold fairly regular meetings and talks, and are a good resource for new beekeepers looking to gain more experience or people who just want to learn more about bees in general. There are also a number of community garden and sustainable food initiatives, such as the Added Value farm in Red Hook which maintain a number of local apiaries and are always looking for volunteers.
Ask around! Go to a beekeepers meeting! My experience is that beekeepers honestly love to share their passion and experience with newcomers.
FarmTina: What are the laws for beekeepers in the city?
Tim: Now that beekeeping has been legalized in the city, the major legal requirement is that every hive be registered with the New York City Department Of Health. NYC Health Code Article 161, which regulates the keeping of honeybees in the city requires any and all beekeepers to maintain their hives to the best of their knowledge and ability, in order to protect not only your neighbors, but you and your bees.
It is also extremely important that hives are regularly inspected for signs of any diseases and treated appropriately. Bees are very sensitive to a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites and can easily infect neighboring colonies, weakening or killing them entirely. It’s vital that every beekeeper is up to date on the latest disease control techniques and put them to good use. Most, if not all states, require regular hive inspections by a state bee inspector to check for signs of disease. Bee Inspectors are very often a great source of knowledge for new beekeepers.
The NYCBA provides a primer on keeping bees in the city.
FarmTina: What do you do with the honey?
Tim: Eat it! I love honey!
Really though, there are a lot of uses for honey. Many people consume local honey as a homeopathic remedy for seasonal allergies. Others, including myself, sometimes use it as a salve or disinfectant for cuts and sunburns- honey has strong antimicrobial properties. My girlfriend even used honey in a homemade facial scrub. Honey has as many uses as you can imagine, but it's not the only product of the hive. Wax, pollen, royal jelly (larval food), propolis (bee glue), and even bee venom (for apitherapy) are collected from the hive and consumed or sold. Candles, cosmetics, homeopathic medicines and more all contain hive products that may have come from your friendly neighborhood beekeeper!
All photos are courtesy of Tim O'Neal