Beekeeping is all the buzz in New York City, where it’s estimated that there are 500 beekeepers in the city. And there are almost as many adventurous beekeeping stories: people who keep bees in their living rooms of their apartments, people having to their wrangle their bees so they don’t bother Secret Service snipers setting up on hotel rooftops, and maybe most famously, the mystery of the red honey of Brooklyn. As president of the New York City Beekeeper’s Association and founder of Andrew’s Honey, Andrew Coté has seen it all. Francis Lam visited Coté at one of his many rooftop beehives to see how the process works and hear some of his favorite stories.
Francis Lam: Andrew, thanks so much for having us up here. This is incredible! We're on the seventh floor roof of One Bryant Park, which actually extends way higher than this, but we're on one of these mechanical roofs. It’s one of these secret spaces in New York City that you don't know about; you can look over and on top of things. What are we going to do today?
Andrew Coté: Today we are going to open up these beehives, take a look, and see what goes on in this little box that I keep on top of this building. First, we light the smoker. The smoke helps to calm the bees. We're going to open up this beehive a few minutes after we get this smoker puffing away nicely with big billowy clouds of smoke.
FL: This thing looks so old-school, like a Victorian fireplace where you've got that big puffer.
AC: This smoker and this type of beehive has been used for over 150 years, and I can think of very few industries that have changed so little. The equipment that I'm using is the same type of equipment that my great grandfather may have used. In fact, this type of beehive is called a Langstroth hive and is the same type of hive he used.
FL: This is just one of your hives. You have many hives on rooftops all over the city.
AC: I have about 102 beehives in New York City. I have them in each of the five boroughs. Urban beekeeping is that's happening all over the world. I have beekeeping friends in Tokyo, Kyoto, Berlin, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Melbourne. Thanks to the internet, we are an international community; we exchange ideas and share our experiences. In Manhattan, it’s fun to have beehives in such an array of places. I've got beehives at the United Nations. I have them here right next to Times Square. I've got them on synagogues, churches, schools, in community gardens, on businesses of all stripes. It’s interesting and fun, and at the heart of it, it's all beekeeping. The way I take care of this beehive here on top of this building is the same way that my grandmother took care of her bees in northern Quebec.
FL: That's incredible. You can see the bees flying in and out of the hive. I've never been this close to this many bees in my entire life – and they're not even open yet.
AC: This is the entrance down at the bottom. It looks something like a filing cabinet. A Langstroth beehive is the type of beehive that's used the most in this country; there are many types, but this is my preferred type. The bees more or less work their way up, up, up. We've got one box on the bottom that's going to be for their them, their babies and for their food; there’s a second box also for the same. Then above that, there's a little metal screen called a queen excluder; the queen can't get her child-bearing hips through that, but the other bees can, so they go up through there and into the boxes right above those. The queen lays the eggs, and only the queen lays the eggs. In those boxes where the queen can't reach, we have only honey. That's honey harvestable by us.
FL: You're puffing that smoke into and around the box.
AC: The smoke will calm the bees down a bit. It'll distract them. Bees communicate via pheromones.
FL: And now you're opening it.
AC: I'm taking the lid off.
FL: That is a lot of bees, dude. Wow!
AC: How many bees would you guess are in this hive?
FL: I'm bad at numbers – it’s why I became a writer – but let's call it 10,000? How close am I?
AC: You're not very close. It's about 75,000 bees.
FL: 75,000 bees!
AC: I'll pick this one up by her wings, and we'll see she has four wings, five eyes, three parts to her body, she has two stomachs, six legs, and one stinger. The females can sting, the males cannot. Females make up 99 percent of this hive. These beers are the workers; they control the means of production. It's a real Bernie Sanders dreamland.
FL: A real Karl Marx moment. In this box there are all these slats. You pull out the slats, and there are bees working their way around them. Is that actual honeycomb?
AC: That's right. We call them frames, and on those frames there's honeycomb. The bees built this comb in these hexagonal patterns, as you can see inside there.
FL: It's beautiful.
AC: We've got very damp nectar that hasn't quite yet been converted to honey, but here we have capped honey, and if I tear that open -
FL: The honey just comes right out. Oh my god, it just oozes the moment you touch it with this blade. You said you have 100 hives on rooftops in New York city. How much honey does that make?
AC: It depends on the year. One good hive could produce 100 pounds of honey, or it might produce nothing. It'll produce something in-between.
FL: Speaking of beekeeping in the modern world, I think when most people think of beekeeping, they think of this really bucolic, beautiful thing, maybe you have a garden, you're opening your bees, and they're going out into your wildflowers. You're here in New York City. What are some of the weird things that happen when you bring beekeeping into an urban environment like this?
AC: There's a maraschino cherry factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It was founded in 1946, and the family tended to be a bit cavalier about how they disposed of the high fructose corn syrup mixed with red dye #40 that is used, in part, to make maraschino cherries. They would dump it onto the street, it would dribble down the road, and go into the sewers.
FL: It's like Amityville Horror; that building's bleeding!
AC: It was quite a sight. If you were to go early in the morning you would see it. Bees like sweet things and they will go after nectar, of course, but if there's sugar water or high fructose corn syrup or antifreeze, which is sweet, then they'll go for that. The bees won't discern that that's not a healthy choice for them any more than our children will not discern that potato chips or cookies are not the right food for them. Amongst other people, a woman named Cerise – which is funny because that means cherry in French – her bees were bringing back what appeared to be red honey. Really, it was just the high fructose corn syrup mixed with the red dye #40. They were transporting it back in their honey stomachs – bees have two stomachs, one is for transporting nectar. They were bringing it back to the hives and making what looked like red honey. It had a strange metallic taste, it didn't taste good, and technically it's not honey. The cherry factory hired me to try to figure out the problem and see what we could do about it. We solved it easily by putting up screens, and not allowing the bees access by not dumping the garbage in the street on a regular basis anymore. And there was a piece to the story that didn't immediately come into the public purview, which was the gentleman in question who ran the factory was also running a marijuana0growing center underneath the cherry bottling facility. When that came to light. When they closed in to arrest him for that, unfortunately, he took his own life. But yeah, the red cherry honey, that was something else. That was unusual.
FL: Is it true that you have been asked by the Secret Service to control bees so their snipers don't get bothered when they're setting up?
AC: Actually, I've had to deal with the Secret Service many different times. I used to keep bees on top of the Waldorf Astoria, which until our most recent administration is where the sitting president of the United States would always stay. For example, when Obama was there – he was very bee-friendly and had bees at the White House on the lawn – we would have to coordinate with the Secret Service in different ways when we wanted to tend to the bees. But, the time that we had to deal with them most directly was when then Vice President Joe Biden was to visit a now-defunct restaurant called The Bridge Café down on the corner of Water and Dover – it’s now gone; Hurricane Sandy took it away. The Secret Service snipers needed to be on the roof of that building during that time. We had beehives on the roof, so they asked me to go up and screen in the beehives.
FL: So that the sniper can sit there and not get bzz bzz bzz all around.
AC: I think that's what it was.
FL: This is incredible, Andrew. Thank you so much for showing us your bees and telling us your stories.
AC: I'm so glad that you guys were interested, and it was nice of you to make the time to come up here. I'm glad that you enjoyed it.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.