Rooftop Beekeeping: Honey Bees in the Sky
High over the streets of New York, a specialized industry is busy building huge corporate structures with millions of employees. These employees are some of the most active commuters in the city. They work long hours and travel far distances. Their loyalty to their boss is without question. And most New Yorkers don’t even know they’re there.
Meet the honey bees in the sky.
While most people think of beehives as solidly grounded in suburban backyards or rural orchards, a quietly successful subcategory of beekeepers makes use of underutilized landscapes in the busiest urban areas in the world: rooftops.
Andrew Coté of Andrew’s Honey (andrewshoney.com) is one such beekeeper. His family has been keeping bees for over 130 years, and currently, three generations maintain hives in Connecticut and New York State. His most unusual apiaries are the rooftop hives in all five boroughs of New York City, including landmark buildings in Manhattan, the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters, the Queens County Farm Museum, the Waldorf-Astoria, and the Museum of Modern Art. It’s a good bet no one notices all the airborne commuter traffic in and out of these locations.
Coté is a pioneer in urban beekeeping. He should be; he’s been keeping rooftop bees for 15 years. For city settings, he prefers Italian honey bees. Currently, he keeps 104 hives in New York City, 75 of which are on rooftops. They are in cemeteries, on hotels, churches, restaurants, schools, parks, balconies, and elsewhere. Since bees can travel several miles to collect nectar and pollen, they do not necessarily need flowers close by. Most urban areas have plenty of flowering plants in the vicinity.
What made Coté choose rooftops as a venue for his hives? He gives many reasons. “There aren’t a lot of other options in Manhattan,” he explains. “Rooftop space is underutilized. There isn’t public access to the rooftops, so there’s less chance for stealing. And the view is pretty nice.”
Unless the building is exceptionally tall or in a particularly windy spot, rooftop hives are just as successful as their suburban counterparts. There are a surprising number of flower sources in urban areas, and bees will seek them out with unerring accuracy. Coté points out the greater variety of flora in urban areas due to planning and planting non-indigenous budding bushes and trees. “The honey is a unique time capsule of the time and place,” he says.
Urban beekeeping of this caliber requires a diplomatic touch, especially for those living or working in the buildings. Unfortunately, most people only associate bees with stings. City beekeepers need to make sure their bees don’t become a nuisance to the neighbors — or even appear to be a nuisance. “The biggest concern by people is getting stung,” Coté confirms. “But it’s only been an issue inasmuch as an unfounded fear.” (A jar or two of honey often sweetens the deal.)
Coté’s services include more than just honey production. He does consultations, swarm removal, bee wrangling (for television and film production), and urban honey tours. He is also the author of the lively and amusing book Honey and Venom: Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper.
In such an urban setting — particularly when dealing with the public or the media — Coté is bound to have some interesting experiences with his business. “One day, a reporter wanted to do an on-camera visit to a rooftop apiary,” he relates. “The building owner has a restaurant and wanted it to be included in the broadcast.”
Such media requests are nothing unusual, but unfortunately, this particular situation was shaping up to be a perfect storm of trouble. “The reporter didn’t want to wear a veil because she wanted her face to read on camera,” said Coté. “She also had ignored the advice not to wear perfume. She refused to tie back her long hair as per my instructions. It was also going to rain later that day. I suggested we reschedule because she could get stung, but she insisted she would not. Her producers agreed.”
As every beekeeper knows, environmental conditions greatly influence bees’ defensive behavior, including everything from personal scents to inclement weather. (As one beekeeper put it, rainy or thundery conditions leave too many irritable bees in the hive with nothing to do except take out their frustrations on whoever is disturbing them.)
Against Coté’s better judgment, the filming went forward. “I used smoke, opened the hive, and within a few seconds, the angry bees darted out,” he remembers. “At least one curious bee became entangled in the reporter’s hair. She freaked out and ran away from the beehive, forgetting that she was on a roof four stories up with no parapet.”
Fortunately, Coté anticipated her behavior. “She nearly ran right off the edge, except I had a grip on her arm. She nearly died right there in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. I led her away from the bees. She was able to regain her composure, and they just filmed me working the beehives while she stood 30 feet away and spoke to the camera, a safe distance from the hives and the edge.”
For novice beekeepers wanting to try rooftop hives, Coté offers some sage advice. “Make sure to get written permission from the building owner before placing a beehive,” he emphasizes. “Make sure that’s written permission, or else you might find yourself having to abruptly remove a box with 50,000 flying, venomous, stinging creatures. That is no walk in the park, particularly in older buildings without elevators.”
Rooftop beekeeping can only be done in accordance with local ordinances. Not every city permits bees, and violators can be fined. Every beekeeper should know the law before attempting to set up urban hives.
But Coté’s success in raising an agricultural product in one of the most densely populated cities on the planet underscores the adaptability of these remarkable insects.
Follow Andrew’s Honey
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Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.
This article is a segment of Hive Minds, a recurring column featuring unique beekeepers, within Backyard Beekeeping magazine.