NYC Rooftop Beekeeper
posted: November 19, 2008
This is part of an ongoing series of profiles of people who grow edibles in New York City.
At 6:30 in the morning I met David Graves of Berkshire Berries outside a lower Manhattan building whose rooftop plays host to one of the 15 beehives he keeps on roofs around New York City.
Getting to the hive wasn't as simple as taking the elevator up to the 12th floor and walking a few stairs up to the roof. I discovered I would need to summon all my Spiderman skills to get to the tiny satellite rooftop where the beehive sits. This meant climbing up an iron ladder bolted to the side of the main roof, and then inching across a one inch pipe balanced between a ladder rung and the adjoining rooftop while clinging by my fingertips to a boarded-up window frame.
A scary bit of acrobatics, but the view and conversation made it well worth the fright.
"The first beehive I ever had was back in 1984, at my house in Becket, Massachusetts. I was working as a service manager at my dad's Chevrolet dealership and my wife and I used to do craft shows on weekends and sell homemade jelly in our front yard, and I started beekeeping at the same time. I got lots of honey from the hive, but the black bears got to it, so I decided to put one on the roof of Dad's Chevrolet garage.
"I was a pretty novice bee keeper at the time, and when I went on vacation they made so much honey that it melted down the roof and spread all over his used car lot. We laugh about it today, but at the time my dad told me to get those bees, in so many words, out of there.
"When I first came to the green market here in New York City, I thought to myself, there are lots of buildings down here, and lots of flowers, but no black bears! I just needed permission to put a hive on someone’s roof and I'd be able to produce some extremely local honey. At first I got permission to put a hive on the Greenmarket's office building on 16th Street, and from there I started getting more rooftops.
"The way you obtain bees is in a package through the US Mail; it's a three pound package with one queen and about 13,000 bees. So what I did was, I took one of these packages of bees and put a little sign on it, 'We’re very gentle and we’d like to share our New York City honey if you have a rooftop we could live on,' and I would stick it on my greenmarket stand at Union Square and before you know it, people would say, 'Oh, I’d love to have a hive on my roof, I’d love to teach my children about agriculture right here in the city!' That's how I got locations on the Upper West Side, Lower East Side, Brooklyn Heights, The Bronx, and Harlem.
"When you put a hive in a city like this, you have to make sure it’s out of people’s way. If you put one at ground level, you're going to get in trouble. All my hives are under lock and key, and I get full permission from the super of the building or the owner of the building; that’s essential. If it’s close to neighbors we have to check with the neighbors to make sure it’s okay with them and if they don’t understand honey bees I explain to them how they are sent through the mail. The only person who is going to get stung is me, the beekeeper, and very rarely do I get stung. The honey bee has no desire to sting, whereas maybe a yellow jacket, wasp or hornet tend to be a little bit more aggressive. They're the ones that sting people and that’s where people get confused; they can’t differentiate the honey bee from the more aggressive bees. So it’s important that we educate people, because as we know honey bees are essential in agriculture. I describe them in three words: beneficial, predictable and docile.
"They are so docile that you really are not going to get stung, if you handle them properly -- but I do welcome stings in my hands once in a while, because it’s cured my arthritis. Which is why I don't wear any protective gloves.
"Last year I lost all my hives, due to colony collapse disorder (CCD). I believe what's causing CCD, and some scientists certainly agree with me, is that the electromagnetic waves from cell phones and cell phone towers are interfering with the bees' ability to navigate to and from nectar sources. The honey bee relies on electromagnetic waves on the earth's surface and the position of the sun to navigate. As we put up more and more towers, these artificial electromagnetic waves crisscrossing the earth’s surface are messing up their roadmap, and I believe and they can't find their way back to the hive with their load of nectar and pollen. And when the queen doesn't see food coming through the front door, she shuts down and stops laying eggs, and the hive gets smaller and smaller, and it becomes more susceptible to parasitic mites and viruses.
"Also, we’re losing a lot of forage for honey bees through development. I think we’re losing 58,000 acres a year of our wetlands, and that’s an astronomical amount. Global warming is a factor too, because with the loss of our ozone, the honey bees could be going blind, so there’s lots of stuff out there that’s affecting honey bees. They have a lot going against them.
"This time of year, I have to visit the hives every two or three weeks. I have the help of Antoine, who is a taxi cab driver, who stops every day that I'm in the market to talk about bees and he takes me around to my locations. I teach him everything I know about bees, and so he doesn't charge me.
"For Berkshire bees, quitting time is about 5 pm. New York City bees, they work harder and longer. And as you can see, we’re here before 7 am, and these bees are already starting to work, whereas the country bees won't be opening the doors till about 9 am. And these city bees will still be hard at work at 7 tonight! Maybe it's because it's warmer here or maybe it's the city lights. Whatever it is, they definitely work longer hours.
"After being down in that busy green market all day, when I take a break from the stand to go check my hives, once I get up on a roof all my problems just kind of vanish for awhile and I can sit and watch the bees at work. And then I open up the hive and taste the honey that’s right on the combs -- well, you can’t get any better than that!"