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Big Apple Poised to Legalize Beekeeping

Deborah Greig checks on her hives at a Brooklyn community garden.
Health department takes first step to overturn ban on rooftop and backyard bee hives

Soon, beekeepers in New York City may no longer be breaking the law.

After months of prodding from rooftop beekeepers and proponents of community agriculture, the Department of Health on Thursday took the first step toward removing honey bees from a list of animals that residents are prohibited from raising within the five boroughs.

The list includes lions, pit vipers, crocodiles and other animals "naturally inclined to do harm." Bees were added in 1999, during the Giuliani administration.

The health department's action came with little attention or fanfare. A bill to overturn the ban had been introduced and loudly trumpeted in the New York City Council earlier this year, prompting a round of local and national news coverage about urban beekeeping, but it never went anywhere.

So instead, activists appealed to the city health department, which gave a preliminary OK to making the change in a quarterly Board of Health meeting on Thursday. The action requires a second vote in March, following a public comment period, to take effect.

Beekeeping advocates are happy to a see a change in the works. "We're very pleased to be able to encourage proper beekeeping training without feeling like we are skirting the law," said Liane Newton, the incoming organizer of the New York City Beekeeping Meetup Group.

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City beekeeping has grown in popularity alongside community gardens in recent years (there are now about 600 gardens cropping up throughout the city). Bees produce honey, which can be sold at local farmers markets, and are necessary to pollinate many of the plants that gardeners grow.

Cities such as Denver and Los Angeles promote beekeeping as part of urban sustainability initiatives. Chicago even keeps hives on the rooftop of its city hall.

Bees worldwide may be in trouble, however -- victims of a mysterious and as-yet unexplained phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Commercial beekeepers across the United States reported initial losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives in 2006. Those losses have continued, hovering near 30 percent each year.

These mysterious honey bee deaths cause many experts to worry about the economic stability of our current food production system, which relies so heavily on one type of pollinator. That's one reason that environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, have supported efforts to legalize urban beekeeping.

"We can't really afford to outlaw beekeeping anywhere," said Gabriela Chavarria, the director of the NRDC's Science Center and an entomologist by training. "The reality is that honey bees are necessary for agriculture, and we need to eat."

In New York, beekeeping has thrived despite the citywide ban. There are training sessions, honey co-ops, social gatherings and lessons for schoolchildren in community gardens from the Bronx to Brooklyn. Rooftop and back alley hives can be found throughout the five boroughs. More than 100 people have signed up for spring classes through the New York City Beekeeping Meetup, according to Newton.

But until now, beekeepers were risking a fine ranging from $200 to $2,000 if a neighbor complained to city officials.

From the beginning of 2009 through October 31, the health department received 162 complaints related to harboring bees and wasps, officials said. The department wouldn't say how many beekeepers had been cited, although The New York Times reported this summer that four summonses had been issued through the first half of 2009.

Now, beekeepers could soon be free to come out of the shadows without risk. "We're really excited to start building support for community gardeners who want to raise bees and do it legally," said Jacquie Berger, executive director of Just Food.

As a nonprofit focused on increasing access to healthy, locally grown food throughout the city's neighborhoods, Just Food launched an effort three years ago to raise awareness of the agricultural and economic opportunities created by bees.

The organization circulated a petition to legalize urban beekeeping and coordinated an awareness campaign in June that included a public forum at City Hall and a beekeepers ball.

More than 2,000 people signed the petition, said Nancy Clark, the city's assistant commissioner of environmental disease prevention, at Tuesday's health board meeting.

Until recently, though, it looked as though urban beekeeping would remain illegal for another year. Council member David Yassky, who had proposed a bill to legalize it, left office this month before the bill went to committee.

But the Board of Health has the authority to amend health codes without legislative action. On February 3, the health department will hold a public hearing on the proposal introduced Thursday to change its animal regulations. Lifting the prohibition on bees is one of a number of revisions on animals being considered.

Barring any public outcry, the changes are expected to be approved at the next board meeting in March, and beekeeping would be legal by spring.

Good timing, since that's when now-dormant hives across the city will begin to buzz, and plants in need of pollination will be ready to welcome honey bees again.

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Lindsey Konkel is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a master's degree in science, health and environmental reporting from NYU, and her work has appeared at Environmental Health News, Discover magazine, Reuters, and elsewhere.