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City bees are all the buzz

Beekeeping gains in the concrete jungle, despite some concerns.

By Bridget HuberCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 15, 2009

Veteran beekeeper Jim Fischer consults with a newcomer.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff/The Christian Science Monitor

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New York

Honeybees may not be the first thing that come to mind when you think of Brooklyn. Yet here’s Yeshwant Chitalkar, high on a rooftop in the Red Hook section of the New York borough, opening a bright blue hive to check on its queen. The vista is a mix of parks, light industrial areas, and housing projects. Dr. Chitalkar works methodically, barehanded, carefully lifting out the hive’s frames, which are covered in a velvety, undulating layer of bees.

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He is one of a growing number of urbanites who keep bees in cities across the country. Their motivations vary: Some are worried about the environmental impact of fewer bees to pollinate food crops. And some are urban gardeners who want to make their gardens more productive. Others say beekeeping is a way to connect with nature even in the heart of the concrete jungle.

Oh, and there’s the honey, too. Counterintuitive as it might seem, urban hives are generally as productive and healthy as rural ones. In a good year, one hive can produce up to 200 pounds of honey.

Urban beekeeping isn’t all sweet, though. It can be hard, dirty work and the challenges are many: jittery neighbors; vandals; city ordinances banning the activity; and problems, such as mites and parasites, that vex beekeepers everywhere.

But that doesn’t daunt those who want to keep bees. This year there are at least 30 new hives in community gardens, on rooftops, and in backyards across New York. Most are the result of a series of beekeeping classes taught last winter by Jim Fischer, a veteran beekeeper who lives in Manhattan.

Mr. Fischer and some of his students formed the Gotham City Honey Co-op to buy beekeeping equipment in bulk, and hope eventually to set up a site where members can extract and bottle their honey. The co-op also plans to brand its honey and sell it to specialty stores.

The only hitch: Beekeeping is illegal in New York City.

Mr. Fischer and other Big Apple beekeepers are confident that the honeybee ban will be lifted soon. A city councilor has introduced a bill to legalize it, and urban gardening groups are pushing for it to be passed.

The situation is quite different in Chicago, where City Hall’s green roof boasts a beehive. Michael Thompson, who helped install the city-owned hive, has been keeping bees within the city limits since the 1970s.

Today he is the farm manager at the Chicago Honey Co-op, which has about a hundred hives on the city’s West Side. Many belong to people who give half their honey to the co-op in exchange for keeping their hives at the site.

The city is an ideal spot for bees, Mr. Thompson learned when he moved there from a rural area where he kept bees.