This post is the first of a series that captures the experiences of our NYCBA Urban Beekeeping Apprentices as they learn to care for beehives in the NYC area. Our beekeeping apprentice, Billie, shares her experience below.
I’m from here.
I’ve been calling Brooklyn home for four scorching summers. I come from a long bloodline that was raised on Metro North trains barreling south towards Grand Central.
And like a true New Yorker, I proudly wear the uniform of cynicism and suspicion. Occasionally the sides of my mouth climb into a smile that barely lingers on the city’s streets. Alert but aloof, I keep my head down with minimum eye contact. It wasn’t until I began keeping bees that I was inspired to look up and out across my city with an appreciation I knew dwelled inside of me but was suppressed by a learned mentality that screamed “sorry, I have places to be right now.”
Previously, I had never meditated on bees beyond worrying myself around their flight paths. To me, the city was a concrete jungle – an agricultural dead zone. Urban beekeeping was never a part of that reality. So it was a bit of a surprise when my hunt for a new hobby found me in the middle of an open beehive, thousands of bees buzzing curiously around my head.
The beekeeper I was with explained that worker bees have a three-mile foraging radius, as she handed me a frame boiling over with honey. I pressed my thumb into a section of capped honey and reveled in the sweet, floral taste. Immediately it brought me back to lying in the warm grass by the cherry blossoms in Prospect Park, which was close by. She smiled as she continued. Everything the bees need, they gather within a short distance of their homes. They won’t venture farther out if they don’t have to.
Anyone could easily connect this short foraging radius business to an advocacy call for us to cultivate more sustainable lifestyles ourselves. It deeply resonates with me – sourcing close to home, buying seasonal produce, living within our means. This would be my new ideology, I thought, something to personally nurture – living like a bee.
It was then I knew I was committed to learning more about the behavior of bees, and that I wanted to spend as much time learning from beekeepers as I could. I had no idea how much bees would alter my assumptions and perspective, poking holes in my deep-seated New York skepticism.
Through the NYCBA apprenticeship, I traverse the city, discovering parts unknown. I climb the rooftop of a ballet at dawn in the Flatiron, inspect hives atop a French bakery in Bushwick, and log hours atop the MoMa installing beehives. I herd baby sheep beside beehives in a Nolita church cemetery, wave to passersby on the High Line in my veil, and navigate public transportation with discreetly contained swarms. I contemplate the connections between Judaism and beekeeping high above homes in West Harlem, and sling honey at farmers' markets on the weekends.
En route to inspect hives at 5am, I inhale the smells that New York sweats before they’re meant to be shared with commuters. Warm rain residue climbing into the air. Flaked pastries cooling on a baker’s rack. There is something soothing about New York at this hour, as it yawns and stretches and prepares for a new day. Where I would normally rush past the blur of buildings in a hurry to get to my destination, I am stunned by the lack of commuters. I stop to watch the Union Square vendors sleepily unpack their farmers’ market produce. I cross a soundless Broadway, gaping at the barren intersections that will soon host a wild stampede. And I laugh aloud at my destination, looking out from the rooftop of a Chelsea building where we keep hives as I realize that after 26 years, it’s the bees that have shown me a side of my city I was sure I already knew.
Bees demand my attention and my patience. They slow me down and shake me from a predictable New York state of mind. Their three-mile foraging radius inspires me to explore living simpler and smaller. Through them, the city has opened itself up to me. Or, more accurately, I’m just seeing what was always there.