New York City's Next Big Cottage Industry: Beekeeping

The honey is the best I have ever tasted. Megan Paska, Brooklyn rooftop beekeeper and organizer of the Brooklyn Urban Homesteader's group, has told me that already, but still I'm holding myself back from yanking the half-gallon jar with the last of her September honey out of her hands, filling another spoonful and gulping it down. She has been getting emails since the fall -- sometimes phone calls, too -- from people who are eager to buy her Brooklyn rooftop honey. At $28 a pound, her estimate of the market value, it doesn't come cheap. Most of the honey in New York sells for $10 a pound; the local honey at my co-op in Portland, Ore. costs $5.99.

Once I arrived at Paska's apartment in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, I started peppering her with questions: Has she calculated the hours of her labor, the expenditures she's made, and whether she will turn a profit? After all, she has just the one hive; this is her first venture. "Oh no," she laughs, describing the few hours it took her to assemble the hive, how much joy she takes from checking on her "girls" once every week or two, watching them buzz around as she drinks a glass of wine. "The cost is almost nothing."

The barriers to entry in the craft (hobby? second job? avocation?) of beekeeping are almost nonexistent in New York now that the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has voted to allow people to keep bees with some sort of yet-to-be-determined registration -- they were illegal up until last week, making Paska's September honey genuinely illicit. Beehives are relatively inexpensive; about $150 or $200 for a standard-sized hive with a queen and workers. You need a spot with morning and midday sun, and preferably dappled light in the late afternoon; while the east side of a fruit orchard might be the ideal spot, any roof will do, too.

Beekeeping: The Ultimate Capitalist Enterprise

Once you overcome the fear of being stung and find a likely spot, the rest depends on the amount of pollen the city's flowering trees, vegetable gardens, flower shops and bodegas provide. Yes, honeybees can sip from cut flowers, too -- Paska says she's seen honeybees that could very well be hers "taking the opportunity to take up some food from the local bodega" and her eyes light up when she explains the way that honeybees eat.

"Instead of destroying the plant to get food or sustenance, the bees give something back," she says. From the flower they take nectar to store in their hive; their worker bee cousins will preserve it in the comb inside the hive as food for the winter. But they also take pollen in "baskets" on their legs, for the honeybees a happy accident but for flowers, manifest destiny. Without it some enormous percentage of our fruit and nut trees, vegetables and herbs would not reproduce and make fruit. Without bees we would have no almonds, no cherries, no juicy watermelons. Without bees our cabbages and cauliflowers and mustards would not make seed.

To capitalists used to having to expend resources in order to yield products, the honeybee seems like magic indeed. The feed is free and provided by nature (with a little help from those who buy and sell cut flowers). Beyond the building of the hive and a little checking now and then to make sure the bees are healthy, inputs of money and labor equals zero. The bees forage for their food, they process their raw inventory into a product that is shelf-stable and will last indefinitely and they store it in attractive and brilliantly-designed packaging.

Will the Buzz Build in Brooklyn?

While removing and filtering the honey may take a few hours, nothing more must be done other than to pour the honey into jars and set the lids on top. The process can work so well in this small rooftop scale that some beekeepers are expanding their empires, installing 20 hives where they used to have two. Really, the only problem with the beekeeping trade is that it's almost too easy. It's a business with low barriers to entry that runs itself without ongoing expenses, yielding a fantastically rich, delicious syrup that lasts indefinitely and almost everyone likes. It's hard not to think of tulip bulbs and credit default swaps. What is there to stop every rooftop in Greenpoint from sprouting a hive, a dozen hives?

The quiet, empty hive a few feet away illustrates one of the few pitfalls of beekeeping; these bees, owned by her friend, didn't have enough honey stored up to survive the winter. "Nature has a way of sorting itself out," she says.

This year, Paska will again sell her honey and the market will be open to those less comfortable with flouting the law (and risking fines of up to $2,000 per hive). Hives will undoubtedly pop up throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens as well as the other boroughs. A good career option, perhaps, for a young woman possessed of a deep love for and knowledge of bees, and somehow the skill (or luck) to produce what is surely the best honey I've ever tasted.

But Paska is keeping her day job at a small children's clothing company. "I can only be so creative in my job -- this is my life. This is what makes me happy and gives me a sense of purpose," she says finally. Her girls are, perhaps, members of an economy set to experience a boom-bust cycle, but Paska hasn't been caught up in the fever. She's doing this for love, and for her, it's working beautifully.