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by Joanna Shaw Flamm

Oh, the things you don’t think about when you think about urban beekeeping…

Tim O’Neal of Borough Bees spent the weekend trying to save his four hives (including two at Added Value Farm in Red Hook) from the oncoming hurricane. We talked to Tim about his eventful weekend.

Added Value hives secured for Hurricane Irene. They survived. Photo by Tim O'Neal

“I wasn’t too worried about the bees in Fort Greene. They are on a low rooftop with a retaining wall, windbreaks to the south and west, and good drainage; secured to shipping pallets, the chances of them getting blown away or flooding was low. In Red Hook, my concern was that the hives would be flooded. Securing the hives against the winds was easy; it was the flooding that I was worried about. The Added Value farm is only a few feet above sea level and in Evacuation Zone A. There was no practical way to remove the hives to high ground, so I decided that we would tough it out, secure the hives against the wind and hope for the best. It turned out well, the bees got lucky, but I was expecting the worst.”

As he said, his hives weathered the storm just fine; see pictures of his preparation and the aftermath on the Borough Bees blog, where he also mentions a discovery that left everyone buzzing–a hive of feral bees in a tree in Fort Greene Park torn apart by the storm. From his blog:

“The storm had broken open a tree containing a large, healthy, feral bee colony in the south-east corner of the park. Since I was in the neighborhood to check on my hives anyways, I stopped by to lend a hand and watch. I didn’t want the bees, I just wanted to see them get rescued. When I arrived, a couple of new beekeepers from the NYC Beekeeping Group and Andrew Cote of the NYC Beekeepers Association were already there and trying to figure out how to get at the bees and salvage the hive.

The hive in Fort Greene Park exposed by tree damage during Hurricane Irene. Yes, that fuzzy thing is a swarming mass of bees. Photo by Tim O'Neal

“A small part of the hive had been pulled down with the fallen branch, but the vast majority of it remained 20-30 feet up in the tree. It was too high and windy to climb, so Andrew ended up calling Tony, the official beekeeper and bee-rescuer of the NYPD. Tony brought in the big toys; a cherry picker, chainsaw, rope, and more. Using the cherry picker, he cut the damaged branch containing the hive away from the tree and gently lowered it to the ground. He did a amazing job of it. I guess after 30 something years of keeping bees, he knows what he’s doing.”

Although an article by Julia Felsenthal in Slate said the mood among the beekeepers was “bordering on hostile” as “several people in yoga clothes and a twenty-something cyclist with a moustache argued over who had spotted the hive first,” O’Neal disagreed.

“The NYC beekeeping scene can be very political, but if she had actually talked to ANY of the beekeepers there (which it is clear that she did not), she would have found that despite differences in opinion, everyone there just wanted to see the bees rescued.”

The Times City Room blog picks up where the Slate story left off, explaining that the feral hive ended up in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, at least for now.

What’s next for O’Neal’s bees?

“Now that the hurricane is past, my main concern continues to be getting those hives through the winter. We were experiencing a regular fall nectar dearth before the hurricane blew through. Now I am concerned that some of the plants that bloom later in the fall may have been damaged by the storm, limiting the amount of food the bees will be able to gather. I’ll probably have to feed my hives supplemental sugar syrup and pollen to ensure that they have enough food to survive until spring, but that might have been the case anyways.”

And where can we go to learn more about urban beekeeping?

“Well, first you should read my blog at www.BoroughBees.com or come to one of the weekly beekeeping demos I host at the Added Value Community Farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn (you can check my site for updates on when those demos happen! (Hint: Every Saturday at 11.) Now that I’ve gotten that bit of blatant self promotion out of the way, I can tell you that New York City is fortunate to have a diverse beekeeping community that can cater to all aspects, types, and styles of beekeeping (and beekeepers.)

My personal favourite group (possibly because I am one of the founding members, along with Chase Emmons of the Brooklyn Grange, Meg Paska of Brooklyn Homesteader, and Sam Comfort of Anarchy Apiaries) is the Backwards Beekeepers of NYC. We just founded the group to focus on progressive, experimental, and organic methods of beekeeping. You can learn more and get updates on when and where we meet at our facebook page.

The city is also host to the NYC Beekeepers Association and NYC Beekeeping, both of which offer a variety of talks, lectures, and courses with a focus on more traditional techniques. While the groups differ in methodology and politics, I think we all agree that bees are great, and that beekeeping is an amazing hobby that can and should be shared with the community as a whole.”

Thanks, Tim. Good luck with your hives!

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