American Times: New York - Bees bring taste of honey to inner city

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The Independent Online
HIS BEE-KEEPER'S smoker puffing blue clouds in one hand and a flat metal hook in the other, David Graves snags a frame deep inside the hive and, ever so gently, lifts it out. What he finds delights him - a perfect comb fairly laden with dark, oozing honey. "This," he declares, "would win a prize in a show."

Although October has nearly arrived, the bees are still hard at work scouring their surroundings for blossoms and the nectar deep inside them. But then that is one of the reasons why the hive is here, rather than in some woody glade deep in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, where Mr Graves actually lives. There, it is cold already. Here, summer has still to make its exit.

Believe it or not, we are on the roof of a hut in a community garden in the less-than-pastoral Lower East Side of Manhattan. All around are tenement buildings, some abandoned and waiting for the wrecking ball, others vibrating with the sounds of Latin music and children out of school. In the garden itself, the shrubs occasionally stir, not with the gentle winds but with the scurrying beneath of outsized rats.

This has been the second summer of Mr Graves' unusual experiment. A regular at the various farmers' markets that are thriving around Manhattan, he is the only vendor to offer local honey that is, well, really local. His customers, though sceptical at first, have come to love it; so much that they happily pay $5 (pounds 3) for half a pound of the stuff, twice what he asks for honey produced back in the Berkshires.

It all started because of honey-hungry black bears. When their assaults on his hives in Massachusetts got too much, he moved a few to the roof of his father's house. "Then I thought, `Gee, there are lots of roofs in New York City. Why not put some of the hives up there?'"

The difficulty was persuading enough people to take the bees. "It's hard for people to visualise me putting a hive on their rooftop. Most people think they are dangerous, because they can't distinguish between bees and yellow-jackets [wasps] and hornets. A honey bee is very unlikely to attack. But I couldn't put them on street level. Someone would get too close to the hive and get stung."

One morning, Mr Graves put a mini-hive, jammed with bees, on his stall with a sign that read: "We need a home. We're very gentle and would love to share our New York honey. Do you have a rooftop?" Gradually, takers began to come forward. Such as the old lady who offered space on the balcony of her 32nd-floor home in a posh Upper West Side apartment building. And the couple who thought a hive on the roof of their brownstone would be educational for their daughters. Now he has seven hives in Manhattan and Brooklyn and one on the roof of a school in the Bronx. The hotel he sometimes sleeps in next to Union Square took one too. "Sometimes I'll open a jar when I'm selling on the square and the bees will come and visit. I say to people, `Look, that's one of my bees'." Blind taste tests conducted here and in Massachusetts have borne out customers' claims that the city honey is better than the country variety.

Mr Graves sees several reasons for the superior quality. Above all, he says, it is the climate, the early spring and the lingering summer. And what the bees have in the city is what humans flee it for - "they are not stressed". For one, they have easy access to water here. Moreover, Mr Graves says, they benefit from the sheer variety of flowers. "There are so many parks in New York, plus people seem to be planting everywhere." His bees will travel up to five miles from the hive for nectar, giving them a search area full of treasure, whether in potted gardens on hidden patios or across the East River in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

He has had the occasional problem. When the buzz of the bees on the West Side balcony came to the notice of the building's owners, the old lady was forced to return the hive. Some customers still wonder about pollutants in the honey. But they worry needlessly, he says.

"The bees find nectar deep down in the blossoms and they are not on them long enough to pick up any pollutants," he insists. Moreover, no farming in the city means no pesticides. "I'd be much more worried putting a hive next to an orchard in the Berkshires, where they'd be spraying, than on a roof here."

As for the rats, he runs like hell when he sees them. But why should the bees care?

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