“[The bees] pinpoint the location of the nectar source through the dances. And what’s amazing is that they do this within the darkness of the hive, and they can communicate precise directions to a patch of blossoms up to two miles away.” -Michael Hegedus
Until beekeeping in New York City was legalized last year, Brooklyn’s beekeepers led shadowy lives, discreetly placing hives on rooftops and in the corners of yards, hoping that no one would notice them ‘pulling frames’ in their decidedly non-discreet astronaut-like protective garb and feel compelled to drop a dime on their tens of thousands of nectar-harvesting bees.
Now that the city has waved the golden wand of legitimacy over the practice, local beekeepers are stepping into the spotlight, sharing their honey and spreading the word about the relentlessly fascinating world of bees and the unique rewards of harvesting honey in the concrete jungle.
Michael Hegedus founder of the Brooklyn Beekeepers Club, has been keeping bees in his backyard and on his rooftop in Bed-Stuy for close to a decade. We met up with Michael at his place to learn more about bees, the alleged allergy-fighting properties of local honey, and his own brand of chemical and pesticide-free single-hive sourced Three Sisters Honey.
So Michael, when did you start keeping bees?
I’m actually a third generation beekeeper. My grandfather was a beekeeper in Hungary. My dad became a beekeeper in Alberta, Canada, when they all immigrated to the prairies. I was probably two or three years old when he started beekeeping there. So I’m the third generation.
When I moved to New York ten or eleven years ago, I wanted to continue it. Even though it was illegal here, there was a hive in midtown Manhattan. I volunteered to help out there, and eventually started keeping my own hives here.
What brought you to New York?
I came here to be an actor, believe it or not. Like a lot of people. But then my other hobbies and interests kicked in, and it’s just so much fun. Once you start beekeeping you really can’t stop. You’re always looking for somewhere to do it, whether it’s your own hive or helping someone else or finding a community garden that wants a hive…
I think for a lot of people it’s kind of amazing to think that there’s enough greenery and blossoming plants here in the city to support a lot of bees.
Well, just look at this backyard and all these neighbors’ yards. They’re full of trees and plants that flowers and blossom at different times of the year, producing the nectar and pollen that bees use to make honey. You come into the inside of a block like this and see all these trees and plants, and you start to get a sense of it.
Some people think that bees just work with the big colorful flowers you see in spring gardens. There’s so much more than that. Look at all the blossoms on these tree. They’re loaded. It’ll take tens of thousands of bees to pollinate all those blossoms. In the spring, when all those trees on the streets are in bloom for blocks and blocks and blocks? Every one of those trees has thousands and thousands of individual blossoms. It takes millions and millions of bees to pollinate them. There’s the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Prospect Park…we need millions and millions of bees here in Brooklyn to keep all these plants thriving and reproducing. And they’re here!
What inspired you to start Three Sisters Honey? To actually package and sell it?
When I started having a family here, I really wanted to get my kids involved in beekeeping. I think it’s something that’s very valuable for society to know about. Bees are fairly harmless. They’re defensive, not offensive. If you go into their hive and take out their honey like we do, they certainly may sting you, so you wear protective clothes. But outside the hive, when foraging or harvesting nectar from a flower they’re more interested in doing their work and getting back to the hive.
If you accidentally step on one or squish one on your arm, yeah it’s going to sting you, but it doesn’t want to sting you. They’re not aggressive. But I wanted my kids to experience bees. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a beautiful thing. A third of everything we eat — fruits and vegetables – are pollinated by honeybees. That food wouldn’t exist without honeybees.
I also really wanted to do a project with my kids that would be fun, educational, and productive in some way. I can always do something like read to my kids at night, and I do that, but I wanted to find something to do with them that would be fun in a different way. A project. So we make honey. They make the labels. They come to drop the honey off at the stores – they see it in the stores with their labels and stuff, and they love it. It’s also a bit of a business learning experience. I say, okay, you want this toy or that book? How many labels do we have to make and how many jars to we have to fill in order to buy that?
I don’t want to just expect someone else to educate them, to create learning experiences for them. I want to be a part of that. And working with the bees, harvesting the honey, putting it in the jars, making and adding the labels, bringing them to the stores…it’s a lot of fun for us all.
Living in an urban environment like this, getting to know the world of bees opens up all kinds of ideas and knowledge that you probably would never normally connect with growing up in a city. The purpose of flowers – we’re able to go through all that. How they reproduce – why they produce nectar and pollen and how the bees collect that nectar to produce honey, and how they collect pollen for food and some pollen gets stuck on the bees and how the bees transfer it to other flowers and that’s how the plants thrive and reproduce.
Beekeeping gives us a great way to connect with nature here in the city. Whenever we go to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens we look for bees on the flowers. We call them the princess bees, and it gives the kids a kind of respect for nature and a sense of fun at the same time. They could be bees from our hives! Bees fly up to a two-mile radius from the hive.
So what makes one kind of honey different from another? How is Three Sisters Honey unique?
I stick to organic beekeeping practices as much as I can. Bees get diseases and and things like mites, which are very common and which can destroy hives fairly easily. There are treatments for these diseases and mites, but most of them involve chemicals and antibiotics. I don’t use any of those in my hives so I tend to lose my hives more frequently than others. So my approach costs more, but I think it results in a superior honey.
That’s the big thing about Three Sisters Honey – it’s single-hive honey, and there are no chemicals or antibiotics ever used. And people appreciate that. They’re willing to pay more for it because I produce it that way. They’re willing to pay more for this honey, as opposed the more commercially produced blends in the store that have been treated with every chemical out there.
I don’t pasteurize my honey either. They pasteurize honey so its shelf life can be extended up to two years, and so it stays liquid and runny. Honey naturally crystallizes. Unpasteurized honey crystallizes at different rates. Light spring honey seems to crystallize a little more slowly than the darker fall honey. I like my honey a little thicker. To decrystallize honey, you just gently heat it. But if it crystallizes it’s a good sign that you’re getting a really natural product.
You mentioned single-hive honey. What’s that all about?
We extract the honey from each hive separately, and we don’t blend them. That means the honey in each box was produced at a certain time of year with nectar from a unique set of flowers. Each batch is unique. It’s like a bouquet of flowers. You can mix a bunch of flowers together and it looks and smells great, but if you pull a lily out it has a very distinct beauty and smell. That’s what this honey is like. Each batch is unique and different.
I won the taster’s choice award for one of our single-hive spring honeys last year. It had this really nice lightly spicy flavor, probably because we had a lot of arugula blooming at the time, along with peppermint and some peppery flowers in the local community gardens and a lot of fruit trees. The nectar and pollen from all those plants combined to make a really nice and distinctive light and peppery honey. When you stick to single-hive honey, you can really spotlight the unique combination of plants a hive has been foraging for nectar and honey at a particular time.
And I can have two hives side by side, producing honey at the same time, and the bees from one hive will head north. The bees from the other hive will head south. And you’ll get two completely different tasting honeys. Once the bees find a location for nectar, they’ll tell the other bees in the hive where it is, and many many other bees in the hive will head for that source. So depending on where each hive is foraging, and what plants they’re collecting nectar from, you’ll get different flavors in the honey.
The bees from each hive, even if the hives are side by side, have basically no interaction. They don’t share information, they don’t communicate. When a bee comes in after finding a really optimal source of nectar, it’ll relay that location to the other bees inside the hive. The other bees in the hive will keep going to that source until it’s been exhausted.
Bees are always bringing in samples of nectar from different areas. They actually have preferences about the nectar. They’ll pick the best nectar, then concentrate on foraging that source.
So they use the famous bee dance to communicate the location of the nectar?
Yes. They very accurately pinpoint the location of the nectar source through the dances. And what’s amazing is that they do this within the darkness of the hive, and they can communicate precise directions to a patch of blossoms up to two miles away.
How many hives do you have?
I have two in the yard, and four on the roof.
How much honey do six hives typically produce?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a typical year. Every year is different from the last. It’s 90% weather-related. We need flowers to produce nectar. For the nectar to flow, we need a really good rain every couple of weeks, followed by sun. If the soil dries up, the nectar starts to dry up, which means there’s less nectar to turn into honey.
If you’re getting some nice rain followed by some nice sunshine, the nectar’s going to be flowing, and you can get a few pounds of honey a day in your hive – you’ve got 50,000 bees out foraging and making honey and under the right conditions they’re going to produce a lot.
If things dry out, you’re going to get a lot less. And if you get a really dry season, it adds up. With a healthy, well-established hive you can get anywhere from thirty to two hundred pounds of honey in a season depending on the weather.
So the world of the hive is rumored to be endlessly fascinating and complex, and you’re getting into some of that. Tell us a little more about the life of the bees.
We could talk for days about that! It’s hard to pick a place to start.
Everything in the hive is run by pheromones. If there’s no queen pheromone, there’s no queen, so the hive scrambles to raise another queen. The queen pheromone suppresses the other worker bees, which are all female. When a queen is present, her pheromones cause all the other females in the hive to take the role of worker bees.
The male bees, the drones, don’t do any work in the hive. Their sole purpose is to find a virgin queen in flight and mate.
While the queen bee lays all the eggs in the hive, the workers decide when to raise a new queen. That might happen because the existing queen is getting old, or because the hive is getting too crowded an may need to split up or swarm to find a new home. When the workers decide to raise new queens, they build special cells out of wax in the hive called queen cups.
The workers will usually raise a few new queens. When they hatch, they’re called virgin queens. The virgin queens usually seek each other out in the hive and fight to the death. The surviving virgin queen leaves the hive once. They make a single mating flight from the hive to mate. The drones fly around looking for a virgin queen. That’s all they do. They die in the mating process – in midair. They lose their genetalia while mating. The queen will mate with around a dozen drones during the flight, and once she’s done, she’ll return to her hive and spend the rest of her life there.
The queen stores the sperm from the drones and releases it from time to time when laying eggs for the rest of her life. Fertilized eggs become female worker bees. Unfertilized eggs become male drones.
How long do the bees live?
All the worker bees are female. Female workers bees live about six weeks – maybe eight weeks in the winter when there’s less work to be done. The drones can live a little longer because they don’t work much. They come in and eat, then go back out and fly around looking for a virgin queen. When they find one and mate, they die. The queens can live a few years.
The drones are bigger bees. They’re bigger and fuzzier than the workers.
So the vast majority of the bees are female workers. You only need a handful or twenty of drones in the average hive whereas you need tens of thousands of worker bees to get all the work done.
The female bees make honey and collect nectar and store pollen so they can survive when there are no flowers. They feed honey and pollen to their brood in its larval stage. That’s how the brood develops. They store the honey and pollen for when there are no flowers or blossoming plants in winter.
So they continue to make honey and store it even when they don’t need more at a given time. They never stop working. We take the excess honey, the surplus, for our own use and we always leave enough honey in the hive for the bees to survive the winter.
What do the bees do in the winter?
When there are no flowering plants in the winter, the hive clusters. They physically cluster around the queen. They crowd into the center of the hive in a sphere around the queen and they generate heat by vibrating their flying muscles.
They continually rotate into and out of the core of the cluster, bringing food in, keeping that cluster buzzing.
There’s been a lot of buzz about local honey being good for allergy symptoms. What’s that all about?
Many people with allergies find that a teaspoon or two of local honey in the morning and evening really suppresses their allergy symptoms. There’s pollen from the local environment in the honey. Eating the local honey regularly gives them a little steady dose of the local pollen, which seems to allow their bodies to become accustomed to exposure to it in some way. It can take a couple of months for it to build up and to start working. A lot of people say it really alleviates their symptoms.
I’m fortunate enough not to have allergies, so I can’t vouch for it, but a lot of people say it’s true. That’s another reason capping wax is so valuable, too, to a lot of people.
What’s capping wax? Does it have more pollen?
When you look at a honeycomb, you see all those almost geometrically identical cells that the bees build in the hive. They use those cells to store honey and pollen, and to store their eggs let their larvae develop after hatching.
When cells are full of honey, the bees cover and seal them with something called capping wax.
It doesn’t necessarily have more pollen than honey. It’s just another product of the hive that’s got that local pollen in it. The bees secrete wax from their abdomen when they’re nurse bees. They spend their first couple of weeks – almost half of their lives – as nurse bees. They stay in the hive, feeding the brood, collecting the nectar from the foraging bees, collecting the pollen, secreting wax for the hive. They start working very early in their lives and don’t stop.
Even though your hive may have fifty or sixty thousand bees, as you can see there you only really see a few flying around at a time.
Are there really fifty thousand bees in that hive right there!?
At the height of summer, absolutely. And I’ve got two hives here in the yard.
Wow. That’s incredible.
It really is incredible. But like I said, you don’t even see half of them because they stay working in the hive. The foragers are out foraging. You don’t see a massive amount of bees coming and going at any given time unless they’re swarming.
And that’s something important to understand about keeping bees. They fly. They leave the hive and fly up and away. They’re not hanging around all over your yard or roof. They’re not running around or crawling around. They fly up out of the hive and away to find flowering plants. There are some bees crawling around that might be injured or on their last days, but there aren’t many. They’re really unobtrusive. It’s easy to keep them on a roof or in a yard.
How do you get set up with a hive? How do you start beekeeping?
The best place for first time beekeepers to start is by taking a class. I teach classes and there are a number of other people in the city who teach beekeeping. Most of them do it between January and March, to get you ready for the season. You have to order your bees and your equipment before spring begins. You have to have everything set up by the time your bees arrive in late April or early May.
I also think it’s important for novice beekeepers to open up the hive and check frames with an experienced beekeeper a couple of times. You can sit in a classroom or read a book and look at pictures of open hives, frames covered in bees, but you need to actually do it – you really need to experience pulling and handling frames covered with bees – to experience it. To experience being close to that feeling. When you open up the hive for the first time and you see all these bees, it can freak some people out. If you have someone with experience with you, it’s generally a lot easier to process.
You have to be careful. You have to be calm and have total respect, and you have to know what you’re doing. But if you do, you’ll really, really enjoy it. I do recommend taking a class. You have to have respect. These are living things. A package of bees has ten thousand bees. Ten thousand! You want to have the knowledge and respect to be able to give those ten thousand bees what they need to flourish.
So you order your equipment, and you order your bees. The bees typically come from the Southeast – mostly from Georgia. You actually order a package of bees. A package is usually ten thousand bees. They come through the post office – right through the mail – in a screened box. When you get them, you open up the package and basically dump it into the hive.
Once your hive is installed, you start monitoring it every week. You open up your hive to make sure the queen is laying. The queen comes separate from the hive in her own little queen cage. When you order bees, those bees are not the sons and daughters of the queen. They’re from a different hive. So they have to get used to her pheromones.
So that’s basically how you get started.
I know you founded the Brooklyn Beekeepers Association. Tell me a little bit about that.
It’s just an organization to help local beekeepers connect with each other, and to share their experiences and knowledge.
One of the highlights of every year is our annual honey tasting. It started off small – the first couple of years it was just a half dozen of us getting together as an excuse to drink and taste each other’s honey. Because everyone wants to taste the honey. The great thing about urban beekeeping is that most of the honey is single-hive, because most of the people only have one hive. And often they’ll only get one box of honey in a season. And getting everyone together to taste a bunch of different single-hive honeys is the only real way to appreciate and enjoy how different all those honeys are.
It’s expanded since then, and we have a lot of different beekeepers who come out each year now. It’s turned into quite the event. First it was just Brooklyn. Now it’s Brooklyn and all the other boroughs, and even beekeepers from New Jersey.
And now every time somebody travels somewhere, they’re bringing back honey to taste at the event. A friend of mine brought me back some honey from Egypt. Others bring honey from places they’ve gone…so now we have an international section too!
It’s really started to take on a life of its own. We do that in the fall after everyone’s harvest is in. Usually around late October. It’s open to the public, and it’s a lot of fun.
Last question – where can people find your honey?
We sell the honey at Brooklyn Victory Garden on Fulton Street in Clinton Hill Choice Greene in and Green in Brooklyn Fort Greene, and in Manhattan at Lucy’s Whey in Chelsea Market.