NEW YORK — Molly Conley climbed to the roof of the Historic Manhattan Seventh-day Adventist Church on a Wednesday morning in the West Village. She put on a white veil, lit a smoker and, as the sun rose, she took out a wooden palette covered in tightly packed hexagons. Holding it up to the light, she checked on her hive: a healthy buzz of activity.
Born and raised in Iowa, Conley didn’t start beekeeping until she moved to New York City in 2005. And although this may seem like a backward trajectory, Conley’s involvement with bees follows the unexpected population boom of honeybees in major American cities.
Denver, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., are among the metropolises to have legalized urban beekeeping. Los Angeles City Council voted to legalize beekeeping earlier this week.
New York City legalized private beekeeping in 2010. While before there were only a few dozen beehives, there are currently 276 registered to 110 owners with the Department of Health, and likely scores more buzzing under the radar in backyards and rooftops across the five boroughs.
But as urban beekeeping flourishes, honeybee populations nationwide have continued their downward spiral. The contributing factors are many, but the main reasons boil down to the four P’s: pesticides, parasites, pathogens and poor nutrition. According to the Bee Informed Partnership, a honeybee research group, U.S. commercial beekeepers reported losing 42.1 percent of their colonies between April 2014 and April 2015, the second highest annual loss ever recorded.
For proof that New York City is in the middle of a bee revolution, look no further than the increase in the rogue bee activity known as a “swarms.”
When a beehive gets too big or too crowded, half the hive leaves to build a new home. In between living situations, bees take up a short residence at a temporary location while scouts are sent out to search for better real estate. But that temporary location in New York City can be inconvenient for humans — a low hanging tree branch, a restaurant awning or a traffic light in midtown.
“They are able to do amazing behavioral feats for a tiny brain to assess the quality of a potential site,” said Gene Robinson, a bee scientist and director of the bee research facility at the University of Illinois. “They come back, they communicate what they find by means of a symbolic set of movements and sound — we would call that a language — and then once everyone has agreed on where the next location will be, they're going to leave that red light … and fly to the new location.”
Bee swarms are often handled by the police — specifically, a detective in the counterterrorism bureau named Daniel Higgins. Since he had previous personal beekeeping experience, Higgins, 33, was deputized as beekeeper early this summer, and handles bee situations along with Officer Darren Mays, who works in the 104th Precinct in Queens. Higgins posts videos of bee swarms to Vimeo and maintains an active Twitter account.
“They legalized beekeeping in New York City,” said Higgins, “and pretty much from then on there's been a big increase in bee swarms throughout the five boroughs.”
To deal with swarms, Higgins wears a jumpsuit and a veil, and uses a vacuum to suck up the bees and relocate them to his own hives in Westchester, New York, or gives them to beekeepers looking to start a new hive.
Higgins estimates that since becoming the NYPD’s beekeeper, he’s received 15 to 20 calls a week during peak bee season, which runs from May through July. The biggest swarm he removed was on July 1 from a tree on Dyckman Street in upper Manhattan — about 35,000 bees.
This is a significant increase from the number of bee emergencies that former NYPD beekeeper Anthony Planakis dealt with.
Informally known as “Tony Bees,” Planakis started beekeeping for the NYPD in 1995. He says that he got at least 30 calls a season for honeybee swarm removals, and around 15 to 20 removals of other kinds like wasps and yellow jackets.
Planakis, like everyone else, has noticed the beekeeping culture sweep New York City.
“All of the sudden everybody wants to be a beekeeper,” said Planakis. “Everybody thinks ‘Oh it’s the in thing to do.’ And I looked at lot of people and I would tell them, ‘Listen, there's a lot more to keeping bees than having a box on your roof and a wine and cheese party and talking to your friend and saying ‘I'm a beekeeper.’ This is an extended family. You have to take care of them.”
In cities like New York, a focus on urban renewal has brought an increase in biodiversity. Tim Leslie, a professor at Long Island University (LIU), found 50 different types of bee species among community gardens in Brooklyn, with 37 species recorded in one garden alone. “When you include other green spaces, such as parks, the number of bees recorded in NYC approaches 200 different species,” said Leslie.
“Anyone who says there’s not a lot of green here is clearly not looking around,” says Andrew Coté, president and founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association. “[Bees] will fly down to Union Square Park, City Hall Park, Central Park, other parks, up and down the streets and avenues that are lined with trees, and they’ll get all that they need.”
The taste of honey differs from place to place, depending on the kinds of flowers that bees visit. Coté says that urban honey tastes different because the array of floral sources, different from areas with monofloral offerings.
Ironically, it is that kind of varied diet that is often lacking in the countryside.
“In our rural areas, we have moved to a situation where the numbers of flowers that are allowed to be in a particular agricultural area are now highly regulated. And by that I mean weeds,” said University of Illinois’ Robinson.
The heavy use of herbicides in commercial crops kills off the variety of plant sources available to bees. And when native bee species don’t naturally penetrate into vast fields that lack other types of pollen, using honeybees to pollinate crops becomes mandatory.
“Monocrop big industry farming is where we’re seeing the bee loss,” said Megan Denver, owner of Hudson Valley Bee Supply.
For commercial beekeepers, honey is a secondary product of the larger business of pollination contracts. Farmers pay for trucks of bees to be brought in and left to sit in the middle of a field or orchard to pollinate crops like almonds, apples, cherries and blueberries. Afterward, the bees are packed up and shipped off again. This kind of travel stresses the hive, and bees that feed on only one source of nectar are less healthy than bees with many different forage options — something that gives city bees an unexpected leg up on their country cousins.
Cities also have less and fewer pesticides. “In the studies we’ve done in Pittsburgh, Marin County, New York City, pesticides are not nearly the problem we thought they might be,” said Maryann Frazier, a honeybee specialist and senior extension associate at Penn State.
LIU's Leslie, who tested pollen samples from New York City bees, found only trace amounts or very low levels of four pesticides. Generally, more pesticides were detected and higher concentrations were found at locations outside of the city. As far as studying urban bees, though, research is just beginning.
In May of this year, the White House released a National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. In the proposal, the Obama administration suggested increasing pollinator-specific budget by $33.96 million.
And although urban beekeeping is booming in cities like New York, Chicago and Portland, Oregon, it can’t make up for the decline of bees in rural areas and the role they play pollinating U.S. crops. “Cities can have a very strong positive affect on bee populations,” said Gene Robinson, “but not enough to turn things around completely.”