Urban beekeepers defy law for hives and honey

The activity goes on, but is illegal in New York City

October 01, 1999|By Glenn Collins | Glenn Collins,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK The setting -- the rooftop of a brownstone on West 113th Street in Manhattan -- hardly evoked the lazy bee-hum of rusticity. Looming to the north was the brick bulk of Butler Library at Columbia University. To the southeast jutted the latticework scaffolding of the ever-unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Suddenly, the swirl of bees hanging around two honeybee hives formed a cloud about the heads of four of the brownstone's inhabitants, Jill Laurie Goodman and her three children, urban beekeepers all. "Just look at them," Ms. Goodman said proudly of her bees, as if she were acknowledging a blue-ribbon Charolais steer at the county fair. "Aren't they amazing?"

If pigeon-fancying was the rooftop recreation of choice during the "On the Waterfront" era, urban beekeeping is poised to become a hot new bull-market avocation. Two summers ago, David Graves, a veteran bee master who was on the roof helping Ms. Goodman tend the hives, knew of just one beehive in the five boroughs: now he is aware of 13 hives in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. And city beekeepers claim that there could be twice that number.

But few beekeepers reveal their presence because, under the New York City Health Code, the activity is illegal. Section 161.01 bans keeping animals that are "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm." An offender could be fined up to $2,000.

"By nature, bees are wild, and people are in danger of being stung," said John Gadd, a spokesman for the city's Department of Health. "And for those who are allergic to bees, it's alife-or-death issue."

But like many other beekeepers, Graves a veteran hive master from Becket, Mass., who introduced Ms. Goodman to beemania two summers ago contends that honeybees rarely sting when they are away from their rooftop hives, which are locked and inaccessible to pedestrians. "A ban on bees is like a ban on nature," he said.

Graves has become the Johnny Appleseed of New York beedom. Four days a week, the 49-year-old farmer visits New York to sell home-produced honeys, jams, jellies and maple syrups from his Berkshire Berries cart. For six years he has been a fixture in the Greenmarkets at Union Square and the World Trade Center and on West 77th Street at Columbus Avenue.

Two years ago, to increase the supply of his signature offering, New York City Honey, Graves began establishing hives on buildings owned by sympathetic New Yorkers. He maintains the hives, trains the owners to be beekeepers and gives them some of the honey as rent. The rest goes into his golden bottles, emblazoned with yellow-and-blue labels proclaiming his product "Bee-licious."

Whether the Health Department plans any queen-bee busts is unclear. Last month the agency faced the rage of a group called New York City Friends of Ferrets when it adopted a list of more than 150 animal species deemed unfit for urban living.

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