The Birds and the Bees: Bee Keeping in the Urban Jungle of NYC

By Meredith Craig de Pietro - Photos by Syd Woodward & Nate Barnes

The birds and the bees of New York City retain an enigmatic presence in the urban jungle. Pedestrians on the sidewalks fail to look up and notice the local pollinators flying above their heads or the interconnected rooftops, graveyards and hidden gardens, where urban beekeepers, wildflower advocates and community connectors are working to nourish the city’s local ecosystems. When you live in a high rise and walk only on concrete, it’s easy to feel separated from greenery. These urban naturalists are here to remind us that, even in the city, we are still connected to nature.

Take Tom Wilk, for example. By day, he is a Sales Manager at a liquor company, but by night (and on weekends) he is an urban beekeeper. “For me, it’s relaxing,” says Wilk. “When I get to play with 50,000 stinging insects circling around my head, it kind of makes me forget about work.” He is the owner of Wilk Apiary , founder of the Queens Beekeepers Guild , and director of NYC Honey Festival , a yearly event held in the Rockaways celebrating bees. “[Beekeeping] is interesting as all hell,” says Wilk. “When you are looking at a hive and you realize what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it in total darkness, it’s pretty amazing.”

In 2010, urban beekeeping became legal in New York City and lots of people wanted to give it a try. “Every hipster in Brooklyn wants to own a beehive until they realize how much work it is,” says Wilk. First, the equipment needs to be built, then the bees need to be brought in and monitored weekly with tasks ranging from performing pest control to looking for diseases. “People think that they can just get a hive of bees, put a straw in the back, tap it and get honey. That’s not the way it is,” says Wilk.

There are hundreds of registered beehives in the city these days. As it turns out, New York happens to be a perfect place for maintaining hives. Bees need a variety of pollen from different crops for their health, and the city parks and resident gardens can provide that. “One of the benefits [of having a hive in NYC] is multiflora,” says Wilk. “The bees are getting good nutrition because they go to multiple sources of flowers. [Another] one of the benefits is that we’re probably less chemical-dependent than a commercial farm.” The flowers in a home garden or the public parks generally aren’t sprayed with pesticides, making them ideal for the bees.

Even a cemetery makes a great place for a hive. Nicholas Hoefly, of Astor Apiaries, runs the beekeeping program for Green-wood Cemetery, whose famous residents include Jean-Michel Basquiat and Leonard Bernstein. “The hives are not in a corner of a cemetery that’s barred off from the public,” says Hoefly. “They are in two locations that are amongst the other tombstones. You can be walking through admiring all of the monuments and architecture– and just come upon hives.”  Having honeybees in the city helps the environment and also helps stimulate the flora, causing more blooms. “ No matter where you go in New York City, you’re not too far from hives, and most of the time you don’t even know it,” says Hoefly. But, according to Wilk, some parts of the city might actually be “over-beed.” While keeping hives around a lush green space like Central Park isn’t an issue, having too many hives in industrial or waterfront areas can be problematic. Although bees can fly up to five miles in search of food, in limited green spaces the bees can’t get enough pollen or nectar if they are constantly competing with each other. “Red Hook, Brooklyn, which is surrounded on two sides by water cuts out those two directions for the bees because they’re not getting pollen or nectar over the water,” says Wilk. 

Thankfully, in these industrial urban areas, there are others who are doing their part for pollinators. For instance, in a remote area of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, near the Newtown Creek Superfund site, on the roofs of Broadway Stages, a film and television soundstage, there is Kingsland Wildflowers. This rooftop wildflower meadow attracts migrating birds and pollinators with native plants growing on five green roofs spanning over 23,000 square feet. Started in 2016, by Marni Majorelle, owner and founder of Alive Structures green roofing company, through grant money from a settlement with Exxon Mobile for the Greenpoint oil spill, and with the help of the wildlife experts at NYC Audubon Society in partnership with Newtown Creek Alliance, they’ve created a field of pollinator dreams. 

“If you build it, they will come,” quips Niki Jackson, Project Manager of Kingsland Wildflowers.
For a building owner, there are many benefits of having a green roof (including natural insulation, stormwater retention and cooling down of surrounding air) but when you also grow the right native plants, the green space can actually become a home for urban wildlife. In order to attract local pollinators, Kingsland Wildflowers planted what the native wildlife like to eat: butterfly weed, purple echinacea, lyreleaf, wild columbine, wild strawberries are all on the menu . “As humans, we enjoy eating comfort food, right?” asks Jackson. “ And we call it comfort food because it’s what we grew up eating. Animals are the same way. They don’t really want to eat things that are foreign to them because it could disrupt their body and it can completely disrupt the ecosystem as well.”

Over the last three years, Kingsland Wildflowers has been monitoring the roof with sound recording devices. The first year they had nine species of birds, and now they have nineteen, some of them migrating birds using this as a stopover. They also have three species of bats visiting the green roof and over 3,000 insects. “ What our monitoring efforts have recorded and documented is that if you build a habitat on a green roof, [the urban wildlife] will just show up,” says Jackson. “Birds know where to go, bats know where to go and so do bees and butterflies. It’s really remarkable. Imagine if we did this globally, what would happen in our big cities?” Just imagine.

Come To Life , Women Who Farm, Rob Greenfield and We Are Wildness are excited to partner on our #RegenerativeMovement campaign. ⁣

This summer, we’re exploring stories of new urban food systems along with Guayaki who will be hosting a series of events in NYC. For a chance to be featured, share your story and tag #RegenerativeMovement. ⁣