Swarms are loud. They sound like buzz saws. A swarm is a cloud of 15 to 25 thousand bees all leaving home at the same time, following their queen. After a short distance, the bees find a place to rest. They sit close together and vibrate. They don’t usually sting when they swarm, but the sight of so many bees blanketing trees, buildings or cars is enough to terrify most people. The swarming bees surround their queen and wait patiently while a few of their members scout out a suitable location for a new hive. New Yorkers tend to be less patient.
This year, more New York City honeybees made the move than ever before. Passersby witnessed tens of thousands of bees huddled on a tree in Downtown Brooklyn, on a fire hydrant at South Seaport, and on the side of an SUV at Manhattan’s Pier 92, where the insects trapped a frightened family inside.
Andrew Coté, an urban beekeeper who volunteers to remove swarms wrote in an email, “I caught 32 in NYC this year. That is about double from last year. Three years ago it was under ten.” He was aware of 52 swarms in the city this year, which is entirely unprecedented. He predicts that the number will continue to rise in the coming years.
Swarming is the bees’ response to overcrowding. It propagates the species by creating more hives. As a hive becomes overpopulated the bees begin to raise a second queen. A hive can have only one queen, so the older queen leaves with one-third to half of the hive in search of a new home.
Theories on this year’s increased swarming range from climate change to trends in urban agriculture. But most people agree that it has to do with the steady uptick of urban beekeepers since the city lifted its beekeeping ban in 2010.
The ban was instated in 1999 by the Department of Health, under Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. It attempted to keep all “exotic animals” out of the city, from elephants and cheetahs to honeybees. It put some beekeepers out of business, pushed some out of the city, and drove others underground.
Chase Emmons, head beekeeper at Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm at the site of the old Navy Yard, said there was an active under-the-radar community of beekeepers during the ban. That community thrived because of DOH’s willingness to turn a blind eye, Emmons said. Rather than actively going after city beekeepers, the department would only respond to complaints.
Coté was a part of that under-the-radar community. His family has been keeping bees for 130 years. Eager to maintain this tradition, but reluctant to be fined for it, he became instrumental in having the ban overturned.
These days you can find Coté selling honey from a hand-painted wooden stand at the Union Square farmer’s market. “It’s very nice to be able to have that little box of calm and to be able to connect to nature even in the chaos of New York City,” he said. “That’s my office.” He pointed to a wooden hive on a rooftop at the corner of 16th Street and Broadway. He keeps hives all over New York—50 in all. Coté loves spending his days outdoors.
But his reasons for wanting the ban overturned were not all sentimental. Under the ban, he explained, “Were I to have been caught with a hive, it would have been a $2,000 fine perhaps. And that would have hurt my bottom line. It was economics.”
As founder of the New York City Beekeeping Association, Coté sat in on DOH meetings, spoke at public hearings on the ban, drafted the beekeeping best practices guide that DOH now links to on its website, and volunteered to be a resource whenever there was a bee problem in the city, all in an effort to re-legalize honeybees. His efforts paid off in March 2010, when DOH overturned the ban.
But now, many attribute increased swarming to that success — Coté is one of them. “Of course it’s because beekeeping is legalized and there’s an increase of bees in the city,” he said. “I think all of the swarms are from beekeepers.”
While swarming may seem like an unavoidable fact of nature, beekeepers can often prevent it by paying close attention to the hive and gauging when it’s about to split. Because swarming happens when a hive is overpopulated, and because the queen’s successor is often hatched before the split, by carefully monitoring the population of a hive, a beekeeper can separate the hive in two before it swarms.
But some people believe in being more hands off when it comes to beekeeping. Emmons said, “The saying goes, ‘If you have 10 beekeepers in a room, you’ll get 12 opinions. And it’s so true.” Some people like to check their hives two or three times a week. “They’re very OCD,” Emmons said, laughing. Others leave the hives alone and let nature take its course.
Brooklyn Grange, he continued, falls somewhere in between, but he tries not to impose his beekeeping philosophy on others. “Bees have been doing this for 200 and some million years. They don’t need us,” he said. “You can walk away [from your hive] for years, and chances are the bees will happily do their thing and could care less that there’s no human messing around with their hive.” Emmons added, “The bees will tolerate whatever system the beekeeper is using, and if they won’t then they can literally just up and leave.” The problem is the swarming when they do.
Coté’s solution to the swarming involves tougher regulation on who is allowed to keep bees. Though he is very much against an outright ban, he does think it would be helpful to have mandatory training and licensing for people wishing to keep a hive in the city. Right now, anyone can get bees with relative ease. All they have to do is buy or build a wooden frame, mail order the insects, and register the hive with DOH. “There are too many people who don’t know what they’re doing,” Coté said. He maintains that the swarms are preventable and that there would be fewer if more beekeepers knew how to handle them.
Yeshwant Chitalkar of Red Hook Honey disagrees, saying beekeepers are being scapegoated. “Bees swarmed even before beekeeping was legalized,” he said. While he recognizes that some swarms could be prevented by beekeepers, he said it’s important to acknowledge that feral bees – wild, unkept bees – may also cast swarms. Chitalkar said most beekeepers mark their queens, and since it’s always the old queen that leaves the hive, one way to tell whether a swarm is feral or tended by a beekeeper is to see if the queen is marked.
Many of the queens that swarmed this season were unmarked, but Coté is unconvinced. “I don’t mark my queens,” he said. He added that “markings can come off.” It can be difficult to make the distinction between kept bees and feral bees, but since honeybees aren’t indigenous to New York City, Coté said it’s likely that all the honeybee swarms originated in a beekeeper’s hive.
In June of this year, Brooklyn Grange Farm opened the city’s largest commercial apiary, containing 40 hives. There, Brooklyn Grange is working on another solution to the problem: they’re piloting a bee genetics program. The goal is to produce bees better suited to urban life.
“If you get a tomato plant that did really well this year and you save seeds from that plant and not from the plants that didn’t do well … after a few years you end up with all good tomato plants. The same thing can be said for bees,” Emmons said. “Every year we’re going to end up with bees more and more clearly suited to New York City.”
The rooftop farm is focused on breeding bees that are better adapted to chilly northeast winters. Ultimately they hope the program will also produce behaviorally adapted bees—ones that are as docile as possible and that swarm less.
“Everyone in New York gets their bees from pretty much down south, like Alabama, Carolinas,” Emmons said. Some people may end up with bees that are well suited for New York, but this is the first time an apiary has taken such a deliberate approach.
If the project is successful, Emmons said Brooklyn Grange plans to sell the New Yorker queens to other urban beekeepers who can plug them into their hives. “That queen will then impart her genetics and basically all the genetics in that hive will turn into what the queen was,” he explained.
But Emmons is careful to temper expectations. “It’s our first year trying this, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said.
Brooklyn and the rest of the city can also expect the numbers of swarms to level off or decrease in future years if fewer people take up beekeeping as a hobby. Emmons predicts that the increase in New York beekeepers will taper off in future summers. He said there was a lot of hype around beekeeping as soon as the ban was lifted, but he expects it to decrease as bees become more commonplace.
“This summer is the peak of the super hip thing, then next summer it’ll start to plateau,” he said. “Then the city will legalize pigmy goats and we can all talk about the goat-pocalypse.”
With additional reporting by Aya Watanabe