Honey With Urban Terroir

The bees’ home at the Javits. Beekeeping was illegal in New York until 2010 when the ban was lifted. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of bees, both environmentally and agriculturally.  So we’re suckers for happy bee stories, especially urban bees. Kudos to the New York City Board of Health for lifting the Giuliani-era ban against urban bee-keeping, not to mention the Javits Center green-roof sustainability project!

Atop a Manhattan Convention Center, a Harvest of Honey

Let us begin not with the who, which was several thousand bees and a bunch of people in anti-sting gear that looked like spacesuits, or the what, which was harvesting honey. Let us go directly to the where.

It was not a bosky setting that would bring to mind the Robert Frost poem about good fences and good neighbors, but the south roof of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s Far West Side. Here the neighbors are the unfinished towers of the Hudson Yards development. They ring what has become an urban meadow — the south roof, mostly covered by 6.75 acres of kaleidoscopic sedum. It is yellowish green. It will turn red in time for Christmas.

The bees have been in residence since spring. The first 12,000 came from California, transplanted in a three-pound container that looked like a shoe box with screens on both sides. They were placed in wooden hives, which look like stackable drawers. There were 60,000 to 80,000 by midsummer.

The accommodations are typical of urban apiaries. Liane Newton, the director of nycbeekeeping.org, who tends them, described her role as “convincing them they live in a tree trunk when they live in a file cabinet.”

Her persuasion seems to have paid off. “They made cells for closets, cells for babies, cells for storing pollen,” she reported one morning last week. “One amazing thing about bees is they have this architectural inclination.”

The finished product created by the Javits’s bee colony. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Tending hives at the Javits Center would have been impossible a few years ago. Beekeeping was illegal in New York City until 2010, when the Board of Health lifted a Giuliani-era ban. The Javits Center’s green roof was installed a few years later as part of a $463 million project that was part face-lift, part green-roof sustainability project.

The face-lift got rid of the building’s original dark glass facade, which birds often crashed into. And Ms. Newton, the subject of an award-winning documentary called “The Beekeeper’s Keeper,” insisted that “the green roof is so much more important than what I’m doing.”

The sedum captures rainwater and keeps the Javits Center a few degrees cooler than before it was installed. “The bees are a grace note, but the grace notes can only exist because the green roof exists,” Ms. Newton said.

Read more about the project here.

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