In northern Rockefeller Park, at the base of a shady tree and behind a low stone wall, a busy, boxy beehive hosts an estimated 20,000 honeybees. By fall, that number could triple. While honeybees are not indigenous to North America—having been imported in the 17th century by European settlers—their blockish hives are becoming common not only in natural areas throughout the City and beyond, but also on high-rise terraces and corporate rooftops.
Beekeeping was legalized in New York City in 2010. Once that threshold was crossed, clandestine apiculturists could go public, and what was once mysterious and even scary became better understood. At the same time, the NYPD created a beekeeping unit, which responds to 911 calls requiring a swarm welcome. Just in the past few years, the buzz around bees has grown, with more and more corporate, public, and private hives being installed, particularly in Lower Manhattan. (This trend was illustrated last May, when a Police Department beekeeper gently vacuumed more than 8,000 honeybees off the side of Three World Trade Center, then safely relocated them to an apple orchard outside the City.)
Beekeepers from Alveole, a nonprofit environmental organization founded in 2019, take care of many of these Downtown hives, including those on the rooftops of buildings at Five Hanover Square, 101 Greenwich Street, 85 Broad Street, and 32 Old Slip, among other local sites. Each hive produces at least 100 jars of honey each year.
Three years ago, Alveole installed two hives at Brookfield Place. Today, there are eight at the complex, with two more coming this summer. While collecting local honey is a tangible benefit, “our number one goal is tenant engagement,” said Alveole beekeeper Madeline Zeif, who is in charge of the Brookfield hives. “We’re looking to connect people back to nature in metropolitan areas.”
Both honeybees and “native bees” (those who were here before Columbus) are non-aggressive pollinators that keep the ecosystem and landscape vibrant and biodiverse. Native bees are often fatter and fuzzier, and do not live in hives, preferring to nest in the soil, or burrow into sticks and branches. The United States is home to around 4,000 of the world’s 20,000 known species. At the local level, more than 200 different kinds of native bee can be found in New York State, with the iNaturalist app identifying at least 14 species in Lower Manhattan. But these “non-social” bees are in trouble. Due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change, more than half of the native bee species found in North America are in decline, with one in four species at risk of extinction.
Native bees make honey, but not in sufficient quantities for humans to harvest. Unlike honeybees, which can spend the winter in a protected hive and live to produce honey another season, native bees survive only one year. The “bee hotels” that have begun to appear around Lower Manhattan are for burrowing native bees. Ten bee hotels, fashioned by Battery Park City Parks staff from bundled sticks, can be found throughout Battery Park City. A handmade wooden bee hotel has also been installed at the Liberty Community Gardens (the photo below shows a wooden bee hotel being stuffed with paper tubes), donated by the Bee Conservancy.
Working with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the Bee Conservancy last year created a bee sanctuary at Liberty Park, overlooking the World Trade Center. There’s a second Lower Manhattan bee sanctuary on Governors Island, near the lavender fields. At these two locations, pollinator meadows are planted with perennial native wildflowers interspersed with a few bee hotels, and the Conservancy teaches new maintenance practices to groundskeepers to protect the colonies.
That’s the corporate side of Downtown beekeeping. Matthew Flood, an Alveole beekeeper who takes care of the Rockefeller Park hive for the Battery Park City Authority, has about 15 private clients in Lower Manhattan. He’s sure there are many more urbanites who take care of their hives themselves. “Beekeeping is growing faster than people think,” Mr. Flood said, noting that all hives in New York City must be registered with the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Some people got interested in beekeeping during Covid, as something they could do at home. Other people who tend hives come at it from an environmental standpoint. They’re worried about pollinators, and are trying to play an active role in helping bees survive.”
Have the professional beekeepers seen a difference in Lower Manhattan bee activity since the bee boom began? “Well, we know we are adding pollinators to the area,” Ms. Zeif said. “And we’re definitely making a difference in people’s minds. I love to hand someone a frame of bees, and watch their jaw drop.”
“It’s becoming normalized,” Mr. Flood added. “General bee knowledge is growing. I grew up in New York City and didn’t see a chicken until I was 20 years old. To be a beekeeper now is incredible.”