Meet the city bee. You’ll see him at some of the world’s most swanky addresses. The roof of the elegant Paris Opera house, perhaps. Or New York’s luxurious Waldorf Astoria. He has an active social life, flitting from parks to balconies, terraces to gardens. So naturally, this urbane, cosmopolitan and industrious little creature’s honey is an exotic cocktail of flavours.
City dwellers across New York, Paris, San Francisco and Toronto are becoming bee-keepers, setting up hives in community gardens and handkerchief-sized terraces. The hobby’s becoming so popular that American luxury home décor store Williams-Sonoma now sells ‘Backyard Beehive’ starter kits (for approximately Rs. 33,200). Companies sell and transport “Swarms” in Europe (about Rs. 6,500). And there are clubs bringing beekeepers together for evenings of lectures with titles such as Fun with Urban Swarms.
Andrew Coté, president and founder of New York Beekeepers, is a great example of a dedicated city beekeeper. His family has tended to hives for four generations. He gave up his job as a university professor because beekeeping takes “every working hour of daylight, seven days a week, from March until November, and still that is not enough time.” He’s the founder of Bees Without Borders, a non-profit organisation that uses beekeeping as a method of poverty alleviation for communities from Iraq to Ecuador. And he’s a well-known face in NYC’s greenmarkets where he sells an array of his local honey varietals through the year.
He explains how people have kept honeybees in New York City for centuries. However, the “true popularity began around 2010 when the ban was lifted after an eleven-year period that we beekeepers jokingly call ‘The Bitter Years’.” (The infamous ban on bees grouped them with potentially dangerous creatures, but was lifted when NYCBA presented its case to the department of health, via petition.) Today, he estimates about 200 people with about 400 hives live in New York City.
City honey is famously tastier than country honey. Andrew says rustic “country bees are more likely to be saturated in pesticides than their sophisticated cousins.” “Different neighbourhood and boroughs have different flavours. Different seasons have different blooms that produce different bouquets of taste,” says Andrew, explaining how some of New York’s honey is minty due to the city’s linden trees.
Blogger Toni B (http://citybees.blogspot.in/), who lives around Washington D.C., sees herself as both an ‘urban beekeeper and nature educator.’ “It is hard for me to say how many hives I have, because I catch swarms and take bees from buildings, but tend later to give those colonies away. I also help take care of a half dozen hives in public parks and community centres, and sort of consider them part of the family.”
She keeps her exact location secret to avoid worrying the neighbours. “Lawyers are thick on the ground here!” She adds, “I do not make money at beekeeping.”
Her honey, she says, “is a picture of a unique green space at a unique time.” She explains how no two yields are similar because of variations in winters, springs and summers. “Colour, flavour, even whether or not it crystallises slowly or quickly varies from year to year and season to season.” In her city the honey’s favoured by trees, the Tulip Poplar and the Black Locust. Also “kitchen gardens, window boxes, botanical plantings, and green roofs (rather than expanses of lawn) which create a wide variety of honey, more so than in the often mono-cultural areas of America’s farmlands. So the honey here has the nice medium caramel taste of Tulip Poplar, the high, light floral notes of Black Locust, but this wonderful undertone of herb and spice will vary even from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.”
Beekeepers typically harvest anything from 20 to 50 kilos of honey a year. Toni cautions that this is no way to make money. Most people do it because it’s a positive step for the environment, especially now when we’re faced with a declining bee population because of exploitative farming practices.