Honey Talk at the Highline

Highline honey from the folks at the New York Beekeepers Association.

Highline honey from the folks at the New York Beekeepers Association.

“Dude, I have a bee hive!!”

This was how Chase Emmons, Apiary Director at Brooklyn Grange, received his first brush with beekeeping. A friend in Vermont was the one exclaiming, “Dude,” and Emmons didn’t take more than a second to think about whether or not he should hop in his car and drive from Western Massachusetts to another state. He drove. A few more brushes with kismet and Emmons met the folks at Brooklyn Grange. Now a partner at the Grange, Emmons has spurred on the Brooklyn Grange Bees (BGB’s) growth. They now have hives on rooftops in Long Island City, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Harlem. Hopefully those bees in Harlem are baseball fans, because they can see right into Yankee Stadium.

The event was a little bee thing. Eight beekeepers showcased their wares to crowds of tourists and locals wandering above the 14th Street entrance of the Highline. Jars with homegrown labels were stacked on display. Even in the shade, their golden contents gleamed. The honey, and the apiarists, came from all five boroughs: Flushing, Astoria, Staten Island, Fort Greene, the Bronx, and from right down the block: 526 West 26th Street to be exact. Those were the Highline honeybees, a selective group, one would imagine, with a killer view.

A smattering of rectangular folding tables featuring the wares of the honey producers lined the area of the Highline shaded by the Standard Hotel. The New York City beekeepers told me this was their best year in memory. “In eleven years,” Andrew Cote told me, to be precise. Cote, the only full time New York City beekeeper, made himself busy, ensuring the bustling crowd was plied with tiny plastic spoons of whipped honey––which tastes as good as it sounds.

There’s been no time for scientific data to come out regarding why the East Coast bees have been in hyper-production. But the beekeepers all had ideas:

“We had such a long winter,” one suggested. “And then a wet spring.”

“This summer has been so mild.”

“Everything is in bloom.”

A bee from New York has a wealth of plant life to forage amongst. The island of Manhattan alone is like a giant Whole Foods for insects. Flowers, planted in front of every towering building, are all waiting to be nipped into. Rooftop gardens, utopic places for those lucky enough to gain entry, stand in wait. And, with little use of pesticides, the bees can run amok in a frenzy of almost organic goodness.
Beekeeping as a hobby picked up in 2010, when the New York ban against it was lifted. Prior to this, hive-owners were occasionally slapped with a $2,000 fine. When research showed that honeybees, specifically Apis mellifera, were not harmful to the public, along with a lowered reporting of bee stings, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene amended the law.

Ralph, from Astoria, had his aha-bee moment when a friend called needing help winterizing her hives. His training came from books, YouTube and the internet. The five hives encompassing his bee business, Mizz Behavin', was named in honor of his daughter. Hailing from Douglaston, Queens, Ruth has eleven beehives in a neighbor’s backyard, five on an organic farm on Staten Island and another four in a community garden in Flushing. Ruth didn’t actually start with all these bees. She started with chickens, which were a stand-in for the dog––that her daughter had unsuccessfully begged for. Once the three chickens were situated in the backyard, Ruth took a class with the New York City Beekeepers Association. The bee-man from the Bronx, Robert, was inspired from a flyer he picked up at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, he too was trained by the New York City Beekeepers Association. His wife’s instructions for the day: “Don’t come home with any honey.”

The youngest of the bee bunch, Tim, a New York City public school biology teacher, has, after Andrew Cote, been tending bees the longest. He got his first hives when in middle school, which brought him all the popularity one might imagine from immersing oneself in the arcana of the insect world. A sliver of Tim’s Brooklyn-based hives sat upright on the table, safely sandwiched between glass, and prodded by curious fingertips and photo-taking devices.

Honey for money wasn’t the primary goal. Most of the apiarists at this weekday festival hoped to get the word out that honey was available right here in the middle of downtown New York––and that eating local nectar is good for pollen allergies.

At one end was Mike Kurtz, the only guy who brought an altered product, Mike’s Hot Honey. Mike invented his sauce while learning how to make pizza at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint. Tomatoes, mozzarella, spicy sopressata, parmigiano reggiano, and Mike’s chili-pepper infused honey were the magical union that came to be a pie called Hell Boy. Customers coming in the restaurant kept asking to get some to go. Mike would send them home with sticky ramekins filled with honey. Soon he was making a gallon a week. Today it pays enough to be a full-time job.

Anthony Planakis, known as the bee detective, an NYPD officer known as the go-to guy for bee swarms needing a new home was the only key player missing from the action. Planakis also has hives of his own, collecting the fruits of their labor just once a year, and giving the jars away.
In New York where nothing is free, perhaps we finally have something? Sweet.