Editor’s note: Sadly, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, this piece has become an epitaph of sorts. Early reports indicate that twenty of Brooklyn Grange Bees’ thirty hives were wiped out and the bees drowned by flooding in the Brooklyn Navy Yard – An unfortunate end to a promising inaugural season for the city’s first commercial apiary. They’ll be back next spring.
Before beekeeping in New York City was legalized two years ago, urban beekeeping was a furtive pursuit. A glimpse of a beekeeper in an astronaut-esque white bee suit, face hidden behind a dark drape of mesh, creeping along a rooftop with a silver pitcher trickling smoke to tend to a hive hidden between chimneys once triggered a sense of bafflement, alarm, and wonder similar to the feeling sparked by an unexpected first encounter with the flock neon green wild parrots in flight over Flatbush.
Today, not so much. As soon as beekeeping went legit and local honey hit the shelves, droves of Brooklynites were confronted with the previously unregistered fact that millions and millions of bees harvest nectar from the cups of the blossoming buds that float in a thick layer above our heads, on the boughs of our tree-choked streets, and fly that nectar back to their hives to distill it into sweet, golden honey. You could almost hear a collective echo as a whole lot of people thought, “Yeah, I’d like to taste that.”
The rapid spread of rumors that local honey bears almost magical allergy-retardant powers was like a healthy squirt of lighter fluid onto a smoldering grill – demand for the stuff exploded, and remains insatiable to this day. But not for lack of trying. Brooklyn Grange, the planet’s first and largest commercial rooftop farm, took note of the demand, and as they expanded to their second one acre rooftop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard this spring, they launched Brooklyn Grange Bees – the city’s first commercial apiary.
Photographer Alex Brown spent the summer learning and documenting the art of urban beekeeping in Grange Bees’ apprenticeship program. Here’s a look at the apiary through his eyes, along with a conversation with Grange co-founder and Chief Beekeeper, Chase Emmons.
So Chase, how many hives do we have here? How many bees?
We started in spring with packages of ten thousand bees for each hive. In a healthy hive of the type we use and in a northeastern urban environment like ours, those hives grow to have anywhere from fifty to seventy five thousand bees at the height of the growing season.
The number of hives decreases in winter as the number of bees decreases. All the drones – the male bees – are kicked out of the hives in fall. During summer, the life span of a typical bee is four to six weeks. In winter, bees live longer – three or four months.
In winter they shut down the foraging because there are no flowering plants. The bees stay in the hive, survive on the honey they’ve stored, and concentrate on keeping the queen warm and alive. The bees in the hive literally surround the queen in a ball all winter.
As bees die off during winter, the number of bees in the hive declines. As spring arrives, there are usually only a few thousand bees left along with the queen and her attendants. And then they begin to build the population again.
We have about thirty hives at the height of the season here so that would mean anything from a million and a half to two and a quarter million bees.
How much of a role do the bees play in pollinating the produce at the farm? Does that matter or is it just about the honey?
They play a very important role in pollinating the plants we’re growing on the farm. They absolutely increase our yield. So the bees are important to the farm, but to the bees themselves, the farm is not that important. The farm probably provides a total of one tenth of one percent of the amount of forage a single typical beehive would need in a season. To them, it’s nothing. To the farm, it’s a big benefit.
So what actually is honey? How do the bees make it?
Bees collect two things for food – pollen and nectar from flowering plants in an area up to about four miles from the hive. The bees collect pollen and transport it back to the hive in pouches on their hind legs. They eat pollen – it’s their main source of protein.
They collect nectar by sucking it up through a proboscis into what’s called a honey stomach. There are some enzymes secreted in the honey stomach that break the nectar down a little bit and begin transforming it into honey. When they return to the hive they regurgitate it from the honey stomach into a cell of the honeycomb.
The honey sits uncovered in the cell for a while to let it dry out a bit. It’s called ripening the honey. Reducing the water content in the honey gives it a very long shelf life. Honey never really spoils. When the honey in a cell of the honeycomb is ready, the bees cap it with wax and store it until they need it.
So the bees don’t eat nectar, they eat honey. They eat it year round, and they store far more of it than they need in order to ensure survival through the winter. That’s where the relationship with humans comes in. They’ll produce and store far more of it than they’ll ever actually need. We’re careful to always leave enough for the bees, and we harvest the excess.
Bees also produce wax, which they use to build and repair the honeycombs and to cap the cells. They have a special gland that secretes wax. And they produce propolis, mostly from tree sap. Propolis is like bee caulk. It’s a gummy material that they use just like you’d use caulk – to seal off holes in the hive and that sort of thing.
What about the division of labor in the hive? Who does what?
That’s a little bit of a tough question. The organization of the hive is pretty complex, but I’ll try to give you as simplified a look at it as I can.
You have the queen, and everything revolves around the queen. The vast majority of the bees in the hive are females, but she’s the only one that reproduces. She mates with the drones and lays eggs in cells in the honeycomb.
The queen has her attendants. The attendants are bees whose sole job is to feed and care for the queen.
Drones are the only male bees in the hive. The never leave the hive. They don’t have stingers. And their only job is to reproduce with the queen.
There are nurse bees, who tend to the brood. The queen lays eggs in cells of the honeycomb. The nurse bees feed the larvae and care for them until they cover the cells in wax as the larvae transform into young bees.
There are guard bees that stay near the entrance to the hive to protect it against invaders. They inspect every bee entering the hive to make sure it’s a member of the hive, which they can tell by smell. Every hive has a unique odor and the bees from that hive carry that odor.
And there are forager bees who venture out far and wide to collect pollen and nectar and bring it back to the hive where they store it in cells of the honeycomb.
And other worker bees perform all kinds of other tasks like fetching water to cool the hive, removing the dead…it’s pretty complex.
What’s the real estate like in the hive? What determines which sections of the honeycomb are used for eggs and which are filled with honey?
The bees establish a brood chamber in part of the hive, where pretty much everything related to the bees happens. They live there, the queen lays eggs there, the brood is raised there. They store honey in honeycomb outside of the brood chamber. Once they’ve established their brood chamber, we add what are called supers – additional frames outside the brood chamber that they fill with honeycomb and use to store honey.
This is one of those areas where there’s a sort of tacit agreement between human and bee. Unlike other livestock, the arrangement has to work for both parties. If they’re not happy they’ll just up and leave and find a new hive someplace else. So we provide the hive, leave the brood chamber alone, and leave enough honey in the hive for their needs throughout the year. In return, they make enough extra honey for us to harvest for our own purposes.
Local New York City honey has been famously hard to find. Producers tend to sell out as quickly as they can jar the stuff. Brooklyn Grange Bees is the only apiary of its scale in the city. Do you think the amount you’ll be producing here will come close to meeting the demand?
Not even close. There are millions of people living here and very few people keeping bees. Most beekeepers in the city have a couple of hives on a roof somewhere. With about forty hives, we’re the only ones producing honey on anything close to this scale, and this isn’t a very large scale.
A healthy hive in the sort of environment we operate in will produce between fifty and a hundred pounds of honey in a year. So at our current size with thirty hives, that’s going to be between fifteen hundred and three thousand pounds of honey.
It seems like a big range, but the amount of honey produced relies a lot on the weather. If you have a crappy, rainy, cool summer, you’re not going to get as much honey as you will under ideal conditions. One advantage of being in an urban setting is that drought is rarely a problem for us. Most of the plant material in the city is decorative, and is watered by people in one way or another all summer.
The demand for local honey is pretty insatiable at this point. We sell our honey at all of our markets each week throughout the season, and there’s no inventory left over. We’ve already sold almost all of the year’s harvest. We’re holding the last bit of it back for a few holiday markets we’re planning on doing later in the year.
Does your honey have any distinctive qualities that you think result from the environment?
New York City honey is pretty distinctive. Early season honey has a lot of linden nectar, because the city’s parks department plants linden trees everywhere. The linden nectar gives the honey a kind of minty, juicyfruit flavor that’s very noticeable early in the season when the linden trees are in bloom.
Our honey gets darker and richer later in the season as the linden stops blooming and the bees move on to all kinds of other plants, each of whose nectar has their own distinct characteristics.
I know you had artists come in to paint many of the hives, and that you plan to auction a portion of those hives at the end of each year to raise money for the Grange. How does that all work?
Bees are pretty visual in their navigation. When you have a lot of hives that look the same sitting next to each other, you get something called drift – bees returning from foraging will accidentally go to the wrong hive. That’s not good – it can spread disease or parasites. It can cause fighting – if a bee ends up in the wrong hive it may be killed by that hive’s guard bees. Or if they’re bearing pollen and nectar they may be allowed to assimilate into the new hive and then you’ll end up with some hives with ten thousand bees and others with a hundred thousand.
So beekeepers have been decorating hives for thousands of years to help the bees navigate back to the right hives. I was sitting around drinking coffee one day, and just came up with the idea to invite local artists to decorate our hives. We weren’t sure how it would work. We know a couple of cool artists, and we thought, “OK – let’s try to do something interesting with this.”
I’m also friends with David Selig, the owner of Rockaway Taco, who has kind of pioneered a community of people doing really good things with food out in the Rockaways. He keeps bees too. I mentioned it to him and he said, “You know my wife is one of the founders of Visionaire magazine, right?” Visionaire is this incredibly well respected art publication. She sent out an email about the project and within hours we were getting emails from all over the world from artists who wanted to do hives for us. [laughter.]
We’ve had everyone from really well established artists to lesser known ones to the kids from a local fifth grade class do hives. Every year we’ll pull about half of them out of the rotation, auction them off, and have more artists do replacements.
So how did you end up as the chief beekeeper at Brooklyn Grange?
I’m a born and raised New York City kid. I spent a number of years in western Massachusetts. I was one of the founders of The Princeton Review, which we built into a pretty successful test prep company, and which was based there.
A friend of mine who was an executive at Burton, making snowboards in Vermont, called me up one day and said literally, “Dude, I got a beehive! Come check it out. You’re gonna want to do this.”
So I went up and checked it out. It all seemed pretty interesting and super-easy – easier than taking care of a cat, really. I got into it as a hobby. In 2007 we sold The Princeton Review to Bain Capital, and that gave me the chance to kind of reset my life. I started a small farm and kept bees in western Mass. In 2010, I heard about Brooklyn Grange, right as they were getting started, and as soon as I heard about it and met the crew here, I just knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do. I became a founding partner. I handle a lot of the business side of things here, and I’m the chief beekeeper too.
Photography by Alex Brown. All rights reserved.