Sunday, August 7, 2011

Get a Buzz On

Greetings, dear readers! Guess what we've been up to this week?

Those of you who guessed Bomb squad or hazmat team or Center for Disease Control's infectious disease specialists, please step to the back of the line. Those clever little bunnies who guessed beekeeping, just pat yourselves on your furry little heads and stand proud. For the record, this is not an actual photo of us, but we wanted to get you in the mood.

Last month WNYC Radio's Leonard Lopate did two very interesting interviews on bees, which piqued our interest so much that we decided to interview a beekeeper ourselves, and we were able to do that right here in New York City. There are enough local beekeepers that there's even a New York City Beekeepers Association.

We emailed the New York City Beekeepers Association and got a response from Andrew Cote, a fourth generation beekeeper, who keeps hives all over the metropolitan area. In addition to everything else he does, Andrew sells local honey at the Union Square Farmers' Market. Here he is at the summertime Rockefeller Center Farmers' Market. On this day, he had just run out of honey from the borough of Queens, but he still had Manhattan honey (which, by the way, is delicious), as well as a number of other varieties. One woman at the booth was trying to arrange giving New York honey as bridal favors. Great idea: it supports the local economy and beekeeping, and is a unique and memorable gift, linking the bride, the event and the locale.

Last year, the city government rescinded the law which had made it illegal to have hives in the metropolitan area for the previous ten years. The law was based on the popular but mistaken belief that bees sting aggressively, but, as Andrew says, "Honey bees are not the ones that attack cans of soda or puppy dogs or small children. Honey bees are interested in nectar, pollen, water." Many beekeepers, rather than give up their hives during that ten year period, simply ran them secretly. A number of old photos on the internet, like this one, show anonymous beekeepers tending their bees in flagrante. Now city beekeepers have come out of the closet, and no longer need to obscure their faces for photographs.

Some of the current revival of interest in bees is due to their alarming rate of disappearance on an international scale. According to Andrew, "It’s been estimated that one out of every three bites we take has been pollinated as a direct result of the bees’ labor." Simply put, no bees, no pollination. No pollination, no fruit or vegetables. No fruit or vegetables, no eat. A recent award-winning documentary, Queen of the Sun, details the far-reaching implications.

Andrew is among a growing number of people who feel the natural environment and the urban environment can coexist. In keeping with our primary mission (spotlighting women of a certain age), we asked Andrew if he could introduce us to a beekeeper of a certain age. Andrew put out an APB, and in no time at all we received an introduction to Naomi Sarna, who kindly invited us to see her rooftop beehives. Here is a photo of Naomi with Jean, and Naomi's two rooftop hives.

Neither of us was the least bit nervous about being in such close proximity to the bees, even without protective clothing. Naomi's peaceful coexistence with them and her confidence-inspiring attitude stiffened our upper lips. Despite the fact that several of them were flying around us and we were getting right up to the hives to take photos, our visit went off without a hitch. Here, a number of worker bees appear to be taking a coffee break around the blue hive. Bees have a foraging range of about three miles, so some of Naomi's bees could be visiting Central Park, but Naomi's immediate vicinity has plenty of greenery.

Hives tended by people are arranged in removable frames, where the bees build their honeycombs and store honey. Here you can see the various levels of the hive in which the frames are placed. Naomi said each of her hives could produce up to 100 lbs. of honey in a year. On this hot day, Naomi didn't open the hives, so we didn't need any protective gear.

This pink structure looked much more like a birdhouse than a beehive. One of the tiny residents is barely visible in the entry. Describing her feelings about beekeeping, Naomi reeled off the following, barely taking a breath between words: "marvelous, exciting, heaven, intoxicating, natural, healthful, elemental".

Unfortunately, real life sometimes does manage to intrude on the tranquility of this peaceful oasis. During the recent heat waves, Naomi lost one of the pink hives like this one. It was so hot that the combs started melting and honey started leaking out of the hive, attracting robber bees who sought to take advantage of the situation. She lost thousands of bees; many of them perished fighting the robber bees. Because of this loss, honey production for this year may only total 60 - 70 lbs.

Naomi's sense of humor is evident throughout her domain. Tucked into one of the potted plants was this adorable metal moth. Somewhere in the garden is a real praying mantis. Every year Naomi orders a delivery of praying mantises to keep the aphids off her rose bushes. When we asked whether she originally got the plants for the bees or the bees for the plants, Naomi answered that she had the garden first, and only added the bees a few years ago.

Looking south. Naomi has binoculars and a Galileo telescope, and sometimes views celestial events, like the recent lunar eclipse, from her rooftop.

Here is the rear view of the hives, facing the rose bushes. An incomplete list of plants Naomi keeps includes: oregano, thyme, tarragon, hydrangeas, camellias, rhododendron, pitcher plants, a venus fly trap, lavender, echinacea, strawberries, golden raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes, muscat grapes, minipomegranates, passion fruit, kaffir lime, figs, quince, okra and cucumbers.

Rooftop gardening requires lots of watering.

The garden itself was like a treasure hunt. Naomi was delighted to show us the growing okra, which we would not have found by ourselves.

One of the highlights of the afternoon was Naomi's triumphant discovery of a ripe cucumber hidden among the other plants.

At the north end of the garden, Naomi discovered one gorgeous ripe strawberry.

Naomi's garden extends the entire length of the rooftop, so the hives are actually very far away from the seating area.

This black calla lily plant was tucked among the roses at the north end.

At the south end of the roof, nearest the front of the building, is a comfy seating area with weathered Adirondack chairs and sculptures. Naomi estimates that start-up costs for beekeeping - including the bees, hives, frames, bee-proof uniforms, and honey containers - is about $1000, and tending the hives takes only an hour or two per week.

Skylights throughout the apartment allow views of the roof. Naomi said she moves plants around so that she can see those in bloom through her skylights from below. You can see the big hive from her kitchen.

On the landing between the staircase and the roof is where Naomi stores all sorts of beekeeping paraphernalia, including the all-imporant protective suits and hats with netting.

Here is a closeup of the headgear. Although we were secretly hoping to have to wear it (you know how much we love to wear hats!), as mentioned above, it's usually only necessary when the hives are being moved or or opened for the removal of the frames.

Naomi is truly a Rennaissance woman. Not only is she a beekeeper, gardener and star gazer, but also a jeweler, psychoanalyst, doula and gem cutter. She plays the piano and is planning to learn the marimba next. Here she's holding one of the stones she's currently carving and polishing. The polishing process alone can take hundreds of hours.

She showed us her very sculptural aquamarine rings set in gold with diamond accents.

Although this elaborately carved smoky quartz ring is quite large, it "sits" very comfortably on the hand. We both tried it on and can attest to Naomi's skill in angling the placement of the gem and the setting. Click here to see Naomi’s website, and more of her one-of-a-kind jewelry.

Jean absolutely lusted after Naomi's stainless steel multi-level Craftsman tool box in which she stores all of her jewelry-making supplies and tools. A plumber who made a service call remarked that it gave her "street cred" .

Naomi possesses a boundless curiosity. A tour of her livingroom also turned up (among myriad other eye-popping treasures) a fossilized brontosaurus vertebra, a fossilized sea scorpion (by the sculpted torso), a fossil of a horseshoe crab and its tracks, and mastodon hair unearthed in Siberia. When we marveled at her ability to manage her time so well, she pointed out that never watching television and not currently having a man in her life added valuable hours to her schedule. Her numerous accomplishments are exceeded only by the size of her heart. She is vibrant and clever, with a wicked sense of humor. Besides being a gifted artist, she is a wonderful host and instantly makes you feel comfortable in her amazing, lovely home.

Naomi and Valerie in Naomi's kitchen.

Naomi often just uses a cookie cutter and just cuts into the honeycomb and extracts it, filled with honey, and transfers it directly into Bell jars. Before we left, she gifted each of us with a container of her honey. Needless to say, it tasted fabulous. No wonder honey has been called the nectar of the gods.

Post script:

After leaving Naomi, we went to one of our favorite neighborhood consignment shops. The woman behind the counter greeted us asking " Where are your hats today?", and we gleefully explained that we forwent the hats because we had just interviewed a beekeeper, and thought our own hats might get in the way if it turned out we needed to don beekeeper headgear. Where did you go for that, she asked, naming a leafy nearby suburb. It was great to be able to tell her that it was only a two minute walk from her shop.

The next time you're on the street in NYC and look up at a building, don't just wonder whether the roof houses some celebrity's rooftop pool or hot tub, but rather whether it contains hives whose bees are busy pollinating local flowers and plants, helping local gardeners and farmers.

* * * * * * * * * *

Want to see more about bees?

Check out Bees Without Borders, Andrew Cote's non-profit organization, on Andrew and his father teach beekeeping worldwide in underdeveloped nations to promote bees while strengthening local economies. Honey is an ideal crop, as it never spoils.

Click here to see Andrew Cote on beekeeping in New York City, from CNN Money. (There’s a brief ad before the clip starts.)

Want to see Queen of the Sun in your neighborhood? The website tells you how to arrange for a local screening. (It showed all too briefly in New York.)

Want to hear more about bees?

For the first Leonard Lopate interview, Why Honeybees Are Disappearing, click here.

For the second Leonard Lopate interview, an all-about-bees talk, click here.

Want to do something in your own neighborhood?

Check out The Great Pollinator Project
“The Great Pollinator Project was launched to learn more about bees and other pollinators in New York City and find ways to improve habitat for them... Most plants in community gardens, parks, and urban natural areas rely on bees to move pollen from flower to flower so that the plants can reproduce. Fortunately, because insect pollinators are tiny, there is much that can be done in urban environments to support them, even in small habitat patches.”


  1. What a cool post--Naomi is leading a truly creative life! Her garden is gorgeous, as is that smoky quartz ring. I'll have to check out her website. There is an older couple in my neighbourhood who have two hives in their garden, which was featured in a local garden tour.

  2. This was a nice post and I think it is pretty easy to see from the other comments as well that this post is well written and useful. Keep up the good work.

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