Oh, Honey!

How does one become a beekeeper – in New York City?

In 2010 it became legal to become a beekeeper again in New Yor City. It was illegal since 1999 or so. The mayor then, Rudolph Giuliani, had passed a law prohibiting exotic animals to be kept as pets. So basically the same law that said you can't have a tiger in your house, prohibited keeping bees. Thankfully some people helped to fight that law, so that honeybees were taken off that list in order make it legal again. So in 2012, I was able to take four lessons during the winter and then I found this garden here in Queens. However, the first day I started beekeeping, I scared the heck out of myself because the lessons really didn't prepare me for being around – at that time – a box of 12,000 stinging insects. Meanwhile, during the season, each harvest I have about 50,000 stinging insects. So it is really by experience through which you become a beekeeper. And this takes years. In addition I went and became certified through Cornell University, upstate New York, as a master beekeeper.


So you teach others how to become a beekeeper?

I don't really want to teach lessons, I rather mentor people. So I will take somebody that wants to learn how to bee keep and if they're willing to give me their time, I'm willing to share my knowledge with them. And I want to helpt to educate people about our environment. I was offered to teach for some schools as a guest teacher. So I started going to second grade classes, bring bees with me an observation hive so the kids could see the inside of a beehive, and then we'd give them honey to take home and we'd talk for about 2 hours. I had a blast doing it. The first year I had two schools, last year four schools. This year I'll probably have eight schools. I find it fun. It's being a teacher without having to deal with all the paperwork!


How many hives or how many locations do you have in this area?

I have 11 different locations. Six are in Queens and I also have four locations Upstate. Or now maybe only three - one of them is on my daughter's property and a bear was just trying to destroy the bees. Fun fact: Bears don't want honey. No, they're going for protein, they're going for the bee larva. Which of course is not as cute as picturing a bear with a honey pot. But anyways, now I will be having a new location also in Manhattan - on your roof, of course!


Is there a difference in city bees or countryside bees?

Yes, In the city I get less honey from each hive, but I feel the bees are more healthy. I know that sounds paradox but that's because there's no agriculture in the city per se, very little pesticides being used. Everybody thinks that pollution is a problem in New York but our city is the cleanest it's been in my whole life. I remember when I was a kid - I always lived in Brooklyn and Queens - I would look over and see the city from my house and it would be gray. Now you see blue skies. We have cleaned up the city very well so there's no real pollution that I'm worried about. Whereas in the country I have friends who have lost hives because the farmer next door uses GMO crops and pesticides. So countryside bees live in a much more dangerous environment.


Speaking of dangerous: Can you still count how often you've been stung?

Nooo and I don’t want to. This year my daughter got married and I had to promise her to keep away from bees the week before because sometime I got stung and the whole side of my face swelled up. My daughter didn't want me to look like Quasimodo in her wedding pictures. But there's many times I don't get stung. In fact, in this community garden, I do a sort of “Come, meet the bees”- experience. People come here, meet me and we talk for an hour about bees and we taste honey from these hives. We have done that with over 200 people over the years and there have been five stings. And I have been the one to get all of them! All five on my fingers because I wasn't paying attention and squished the bees. So that shows you if you bee keep the right way, you don't get stung. You know, I don't want them to sting me. But not because how it hurts - more because that when they die, it gets them upset and the hive will take about a day to calm down. If they're not calm, they're not  producing. So I try to  keep my bees calm and happy - so that they produce more honey for us.

How do the bees in this city find foraging places?

Bees have remarkable vision. They don't see like we see. They see more of the ultraviolet spectrum and there are flowers that actually have ultraviolet colors. So even when the bees are flying high up in the air they will spot that patch of flowers below.
The difference with honey bees – as opposed to other bees -  is their communication skills:  They go back to the hive and they communicate when they find a good source of food. They bring a little taste to all their sisters, in essence. They do a dance by waggling their bee-hind which tells the others how far away it is and what direction to fly and then use the sun for navigation.


Our bees will live high up on the roof. How this is going to work?

This honestly is going to be a new experience for me, too, because the highest roof hive I have is four floors and your roof is 30 floors high. But when I went to your hotel I looked straight down at a patch of trees at the Memorial Garden and those trees - linden trees or basswood trees - are a very good nectar source. So our bees will be flying straight down – and in July when those trees bloom they will get the most nectar. I'm planning on putting up two hives to start with and in the middle of beekeeping season, there will be around 50.000 bees per hive up there..

What are your plans for the future?

Well, my hopes are that I can make my beekeeping business profitable. And I started a not-for-profit organization called the Queens Beekeepers Guild in 2018, that I want to promote further. It's not a club just for bee keepers, it's a club that wants to have regular people come in to learn what's going on in the environment. Because every September people contact me and want help beause they have bees in the house - but they don't: They have yellow jackets in the house. So the first thing I want to show them is, what a yellow jacket is and what a honeybee is and what a hornets’ or wasps' nest looks like. So people stop calling me to remove them – because I find them scary, too! Unfortunately our Bee Cop in New York no longer removes them...


There's a Bee Cop?

Yes, we've had for the last 15 years or so, a succession of different bee cops in New York. When there's a swarm, you call 911, he is supposed to go there and retrieve the swarm and then rehouse it somewhere.

What to do if you one encounters a swarm of bees?

Keep calm. I've been in the middle of the swarm in shorts and a T-shirt. They will not sting you because they have nothing to protect. They are looking for a new home. So they're flying all around, they're bumping into you, they're bumping into each other until they find a place to sit and wait while they send scouts out to look for a new home. And that's when the bee cop comes in. He either vacuums them or - if they're hanging from a tree - we just put a box under it, shake the tree, they fall into the box. We close the box. As long as they have their queen, they're happy and follow her. In fact, some some beekeepers will do it the long way, and they'll catch the queen, put her in the box and just leave the box. The bees will follow the queen and the beekeeper comes back hours later and just puts a cover on the box. But as New Yorkers, we like to get things done fast, so we bring vacuum cleaners and stuff, which also makes it more exciting!


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Did you know ...?

  • Spring honey is lighter in color and tastes more floral than honey that bees produce in the fall - it tastes more like caramel. 
  • Bees ventilate the smoke, which beekeepers use to calm them down, out of the hive with their wings - only then are they ready to produce honey again.
  • Bees are very clean animals. They do their "business" outside the hive.