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To bee or not to bee: cities ponder plight of urban hives

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Andrew Cote, president of the NYC Beekeepers Association at his family apiary in Norwalk, Conn. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Coleman)

Andrew Coté, the president and founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association, came by his love for bees honestly—his father, Norman Coté, was the third generation to manage the family apiary in Norwalk, Conn., while he also tended to more famous beehives, including those belonging to Martha Stewart in nearby Westport.

Coté, who has kept bees for a quarter-century, has noticed a surge in the popularity of beekeeping over the past couple of years. In addition to caring for his own hives—which number 200, each containing about 75,000 bees—Coté sells equipment to fledgling beekeepers. He reports that there has been an increase in demand for wooden hives, hive tools, smokers, gloves and veils, as well as for the bees themselves. Every year for 25 years, he has driven 22 hours to a breeder in Bellville, Ga., to buy bees, which he adds to his own apiary or sells to other beekeepers in the area.

“Breeders can’t keep up with the demand. There is a huge interest in keeping bees. Clubs have sprung up all over. Denver, Chicago, London, Paris, Vancouver,” he says.

Recently, the public has begun to take an increased interest in honeybees after the onset in 2006 of the still unexplained colony collapse disorder, or CCD, in which bees seem to abruptly abandon the colony, leaving no trace. The beleaguered honeybee has attracted a lot of attention because the insect is responsible for pollinating one-third of the world’s food supply.

Concern about the creature’s disappearance has led to an uptick in the number of new beekeepers who want to help maintain the insect’s population. As a result, while the bee population is going down, the number of beekeepers is going up. Fledgling apiculturists around the country have come to the rescue of the bee.

“CCD is the best and the worst thing to happen to the honeybee in a long time,” says Karen Peteros, president of the San Francisco Beekeepers’ Association.

The problem is that some municipal governments—including that of New York City, where beekeeping is illegal—are caught between the desire to save the honeybee from extinction and existing restrictions to protect citizens from potentially harmful insects. In New York City, there are health codes prohibiting the possession and sale of venomous insects.

About 2 million Americans are severely allergic to honeybees and many more people are simply afraid of them. Still, New York City Council member David Yassky recently proposed legislation to make beekeeping legal for people with a license. The legislation reflects Yassky’s desire to bring New York up to par with other cities, such as Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., that support beekeepers’ rights.

Beekeeping is sustainable in urban centers because there are fewer pesticides and people tend to keep smaller, more manageable apiaries. Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation speculates that colony collapse disorder is the result of insecticides called nicotinoids, which attack the central nervous system of bees, causing them “to lose their way and forget what they are supposed to do.”

Other possible explanations include the parasitic varroa mite and what Coté calls “unsavory beekeeping practices,” like migratory beekeeping, which involves transporting beehives in the back of trucks to pollinate different crops around the country. Coté says this practice results in “the overworking of this little animal.”

Beekeeping is thriving in San Francisco. According to Peteros, the association increased its membership from 60 in 2006 to 110 in 2008. The demand for hives has gone up as well. Last year, members ordered 74 bee packages from commercial bee breeders, up from 26 packages in 2006.

Peteros sells the honey she gets from her 35 hives to help pay for her beekeeping equipment. And in a good year, Coté’s hives yield 10 tons of honey, which he sells at farmers’ markets in New York City. Coté also started up a nonprofit called Bees Without Borders, which teaches beekeeping practices to people in developing countries.

But what is most striking about Coté and Peteros is their intense love for honeybees.

“They are beautiful. There is nothing like a spring beehive,” Coté says. “The smell. The way honey and pollen mingle together–when you inhale the aroma, hear the gentle hum of bees–it’s a beautiful thing.”

It’s this passion for beekeeping that may save the honeybee from extinction.

“There’s something fascinating about this group of beings. It’s all these individuals, but it’s also an organism,” Peteros says. “Most people become really impassioned about it.”

A couple of weeks ago, Peteros had an accident when she was moving a hive, and it broke apart. She wasn’t wearing a veil, and the bees flew up into her face and hair, stinging her about 50 times, but it still didn’t make her question her devotion.

“Poor bees,” she says. “I felt so bad for them.”

E-mail: lac2166@columbia.edu