Sweet Victory: New York City Legalizes Beekeeping

Sweet relief for untold numbers of outlaw New York City beekeepers came Tuesday in what was probably the most-anticipated vote ever taken by the board of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene: Honeybees may now be kept legally in the five boroughs. A story in The New York TimesMonday reported on the impending vote, and estimated that "hundreds" of New Yorkers were already keeping bees in violation of the health code.

Previously, bees had been classified as a prohibited "wild animal" under Title IV of the Health Code, Article 161, Section 161.01, listed among a diverse group that includes everything from polar and grizzly bears to raccoons and cat-bears to squirrels, bats, snapping turtles, condors ... and, of course, "all venomous insects, including, but not limited to, bee, hornet and wasp." While it's certain that many of these wild animals (not the bears, but surely the venomous insects, the squirrels and the raccoons) live happily in the public parks and backyards of New York City, if they are kept on purpose by residents, the health department can levy fines of between $200 and $2,000 -- and some beekeepers have received the maximum penalty.

"I am over the moon about today's ruling, as are many of my friends in the New York Beekeepers Association and other beekeeping groups in the NYC area," said Megan Paska, beekeeper of Brooklyn Honey and organizer of the Brooklyn Society of Urban Homesteaders, which teaches classes on a variety of skills -- among them, urban beekeeping. "It's a relief to know that we no longer have to fear being penalized for doing something we all truly believe is beneficial to our community."

Fighting the Law for the Good of the City

Paska's 2009 honey harvest is sold out; in July 2010, Brooklyn Honey will be offering its first legal harvest, along with other scofflaws such as Eagle Street Rooftop Farm which had already been selling city-produced honey in farmers markets, delis and food co-ops. Honeybees are non-aggressive, and they are excellent pollinators whose work is responsible for between 15% and 30% of the food Americans eat. Because of bees' role as pollinators, many urban gardeners and rooftop farmers have long believed that operating on the wrong side of the law was not just worth the possible price, but vital to their fellow citizens' quality of life. Flouting the law seemed so important to New York's beekeepers that they Tweeted, kept blogs and made videos explaining how "stupid" the law was and how keeping bees on rooftops "is a really good thing for New York City."

Not only do bees provide that life-giving connection between male and female flower parts, but their honey is delicious, local, kosher and vegan. Further, many beekeepers and whole-food nutritionists claim it's a powerful source of antioxidants and a relief -- if not a cure -- for allergies as varied as hay fever and peanut aversion. According to proponents of this theory, the closer the source of a honeybee's nectar to where you live, the more effective it is against the environmental allergens you experience. This, and a passion for local food sources that has been growing ever more intense in recent years, have resulted in a thriving demand for New York City honey.

Urban beekeepers are also encouraged to ply their trade, despite its many pitfalls, because environmental pesticides are thought to be one of the main causes of Colony Collapse Disorder. These pesticides are common in the agricultural areas which surround the suburbs of major cities like New York; ironically, this means that the cities are low-toxin havens for the threatened apis mellifera.

Now, New York's many urban beekeepers can more easily fulfill their mission of increasing the number of rooftops and sunny backyard gardens in the city which host nature's most-loved pollinators. Come this summer, locavores will reap the sweet rewards at farmers markets and friends' urban homesteads.