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.