The Calm Before the Swarm: A Day in the Life of an Urban Beekeeper

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[Photographs: Valery Rizzo]

It started with a phone call from the health department. A rootless swarm of bees had settled over the door of a 24-hour check-cashing store on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. My wife, Hali Lee, and I gathered our equipment and our protective suits and, feeling very much like the Ghostbusters team, began to walk from our house in Fort Greene.

The five beehives we have on our roof are registered with the city, so once or twice a year, we get calls to rescue errant swarms from other people's backyards and grape arbors. But this was the first time we'd ever been asked to foray into such an inhospitable urban setting. Though registering your hives is theoretically mandatory, many beekeepers don't bother. No one told us that by signing up, we were informally volunteering to become truant officers for the neighborhood's runaway hives, though we are happy to do it.

The sky was drizzly and had the low, airless feeling of the subterranean alleys in Blade Runner. Our beekeeping partner, Davin Larson, along with his apprentice/assistant, Amy Grumbling, had arrived earlier and was grabbing dinner at the Popeyes next door. The ladder promised by the check-cashing store was woefully short, but, by standing up in turns on its top platform and holding on to some scaffolding, my wife and I could reach the height of the swarm, which was hanging from the storefront's plate glass window, about 12 feet from the sidewalk. The swarm was a small gathering, perhaps 300 or 400 insects—about the size of a large eggplant—the bees' wings arranged like the seeds on a sunflower. Originally there had been three swarms, and we could see the markings on the glass where the others had been. This one had been gradually losing bees, their carcasses scattered on the pavement below.

Eventually, Davin came out from the Popeyes, wiping the grease off of his lips with a napkin. He's over six feet tall, a bearded 30-year-old with ear plug piercings and a poetry-writing degree from the New School. These days, he freelances around the city as an apiarist—tending several sets of hives, mostly owned by others—while holding down a day job as a social media manager at one of Lincoln Center's resident companies. One of his gigs is tending hives at the nearby Green-Wood Cemetery, whose gift shop sells his honey under the name of "The Sweet Hereafter." We'd initially hired Davin to be our son's after-school babysitter, but when we learned that he'd grown up caring for his father's bees in Kansas City, we decided to let him have a crack at the hive box I'd given Hali for her 40th birthday, which had languished, untouched, beneath the piano for several years. We soon found ourselves ordering more hive boxes and swarms, setting them up on our roof with our beekeeper's help.

Back at the check-cashing shop, Davin climbed the ladder and knocked the swarm into a cardboard box with a six-inch drywall knife. Shedding our gear, we walked the bees to our house and set them up in a small hive on our roof. At this point, the swarm likely contained too few insects to survive; if it continued to lose bees, we would try to join it with one of our other hives.

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Beekeeping is a collaborative effort, at least for us. Usually we go up on the roof at dusk, when the bees are quiescent. It's a nice time to be out in the open air, when the breeze is cooling, the clouds are edged with rust, the sky is deepening blue, and the cliffs and cornices of the 37-story Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower glow in tones of orange and umber. On this particular evening, we fire up the smoker, lift a few lids, and pump smoke over the massing bees, who take the whiff of smoldering cardboard inside the smoker as a sign of fire in the tree they are programmed to think they're in. They charge for the nearest cells to stick their heads in, drinking honey for energy in case they need to flee. The slanting rays of the sun catch our white protective suits, and they flare up in bright sunset colors. We lift the frames out one by one and examine under and around the circling bees, our waggle dancers, for brood nestled in their age-darkened cells: the tiny, barely visible curls of fertilized bee embryos that are the ultimate sign of a healthy queen in residence. Only Davin, with his younger, trained eyes, can reliably see them. If we are lucky, we will also find the queen, about a quarter of an inch longer yet no wider than her sisters, noodling through the melee here and there like a happy centipede.

Though bees have few human traits, and are not, in a traditional sense, warm and fuzzy, they still inspire unusual affection. My wife calls them her "girls." The queen, then, is the top girl, the core of the hive. Except for once (provided no calamities strike), she will remain in the hive her entire life, overseeing generations of identical female honey gatherers. That one time, which happens when she is a week or two old, she'll wriggle up to the lip of the hive, spread her wrinkled and uncertain wings, and suddenly spring out, making a break for freedom, flying for the first and only time of her tender existence. Sensing her absence, perhaps through subtle changes in hive smell, larger drone bees, who are all males, will mass and launch after her. Up in the air somewhere nearby, she'll allow them to catch up with her, and together they'll indulge in a free-for-all aerial orgy, after which the queen, carrying all the sperm she will need for the rest of her days, will return to the hive. When her squires try to follow her inside, however, they will find the entrance barred by female worker bees. Wracked, no doubt, with existential angst, they will wander for a few days, until they drop out of the sky. Their job is done; they are no longer needed.

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We wring the excess honey from the frames, using a centrifuge, once or twice a year, depending on how much the bees have produced. In the hives, the thin, clear nectar collected from trees and berry bushes has gone through a complex process of regurgitation and enzymatic breakdown. The fanning of the bees' wings plays its own part, evaporating some of the water in the nectar to yield the familiar golden syrup. In a typical year, a hive of, say, 20,000 bees will eat 120 pounds of honey, which is much more than the 30 to 60 pounds we take from them annually. I enjoy this bounty most, perhaps, when I stir it into a cup of pungent English breakfast tea. On the shimmering surface of the infusion, a mist of vapor dances, and tiny bits of beeswax melt and spread like oil, working their flavor into the tea's twiggy tannins.

It's hard to believe that the bee finds this pure nectar amid the cement and shouts and gear-grinding of the city, but it does. It finds flowers everywhere, where we see only sidewalks and cracks and coffee shops and clothing stores. That's not to say the bee can't be fooled: A beekeeper on Governors Island found that his bees were mysteriously producing a bright red honey. It turned out that they were flying across the East River to a maraschino cherry factory in Red Hook, where they lapped up the sweet runoff.

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With bees, there is always more mystery. Though we've been tending them for five years, the unknown far exceeds the known. The hive that we'd thought we'd gotten to know over several seasons, to the point where we no longer bothered to put on protective mesh suits when we checked under her lid, suddenly lost her temper one night. There was a commanding thrum as 40,000 wings launched a cloud of bees into the air. The swarm, invisible against the black sky, settled with unerring aim on the exposed skin of our necks and hands—a danger we realized too late, in brilliant explosions of pain. The fear was existential, and we fled in disarray over the rooftop.

There is, of course, something quixotic about raising bees, and the laborious process of harvesting their honey, in a city where anything can be prepared and brought to you in minutes through ordering online. The point is to push back against that too-frequent ease and follow the true grain of your life. I bake bread, too, once a week or so, using wild yeast and my hands; like keeping bees, it is an unpredictable enterprise. Sometimes the loaves come out of the oven in enormous, satisfying, mushroom-headed puffs; other times, they end up charred, flat, hockey-puck rounds. In either case, the bread tastes good, and usually more than good: fragrant, chewy, with a crisp, burnished crust. It's like that with honey, too. Some years, we fill bucket after bucket with golden syrup, and have plenty to give away and sell; other years, we're barely able to force a brown, waxy mush through the filter screen, and have only enough for ourselves. In either case, the honey is delicious, a concentration of flowers that has no imitators. That's why we do it, I think—to be able to reach for that repurposed peanut butter jar with its Magic-Markered label: "Fall 2016, Waxy and Dark."

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After a few weeks, we returned to look in on the lost swarm we'd rescued from the check-cashing storefront on Flatbush. Just as we'd feared, the number of bees had fallen to a dangerous level; there were fewer than a hundred when we decided to join the swarm to one of our stronger hives. First, we inserted a page from the New York Times business section (June 16, 2017: "Did the Jack Welch Model Sow Seeds of G.E.'s Decline?") into the hive to separate the populations. Theoretically, as the bees became used to each other's smells and sounds, they'd eat through the paper to peacefully mingle. When Davin and I climbed the steel ladder to the roof, we discovered a hirsute mass of dark bee bodies, spilling out of the entrance and cooling themselves on the front of the hive. Davin was pleased: Such "bearding" is a sure sign of health. Lifting the lid, we found the newsprint completely chewed away and the frames heavy with honey and brood. Our check-cashing 100 had apparently joined the sturdier swarm and been accepted by its queen. It doesn't always work out so well when you have bees, but it's nice when it does.