A Secret Downside of the Urban Beekeeping Trend

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Robin Shulman


This summer, a group of beekeepers in Brooklyn noticed their bees were flying home with honey bellies glowing like red bulbs, and filling around 10 hives with an incandescent red substance that didn't look like honey. Were the bees foraging sumac? Or gathering from hummingbird feeders? Or from antifreeze from the nearby bus yard? The beekeepers sent a sample to a state lab for testing, and the results came back: Red Dye No. 40.

A block away from the most affected hives in the Red Hook neighborhood is Dell's Maraschino Cherries Company.

Honey is seen as something pure and natural, but bees are foragers whose guiding principle is "The sweeter the better"—even if that means making the untraditional choice of gathering artificial sugars from the urban landscape. According to New York State apiarist Paul Cappy (yes, New York has an official state apiarist), a Long Island beekeeper who lived next to a candy factory once saw his bees make their hive a rainbow of high-fructose corn syrup, in red, blue, and green. Another beekeeper, according to apiarist lore, lived near a candy factory in Syracuse, and his bees produced a lovely, delicate spearmint- and winter mint-flavored honey.

Could it be that in this year's scorching month of July, their natural source of nectar burned out, and the bees discovered a taste for high-fructose corn syrup?

It turns out the phenomenon is nothing new. In 1905, the A.I. Root Company, beekeeping suppliers still operating today, kept 28 hives on the roof of a building on Vesey Street in Manhattan, near two big candy factories. The bees flew into the boiling room of one factory through windows kept open "on account of the great heat within," The New York Times wrote. They sucked up what sugary liquids they could find, stinging workers who stood in the way and a Board of Health inspector conducting too assiduous an investigation.

There have always been bees, said Dell's Maraschino Cherries owner Arthur Mondella, gravel-voiced and dough-faced with a widow's peak. His office is filled with a sweet scent, and jars of cherries adorn every desk: Some are an alarming shade of jade, others PlaySkool hues of blue and orange, but most are that shrieking, tropical-sunset red that tops Manhattans and old-fashioned cherry Cokes. In the past, Mondella said, small numbers of bees would show up looking for cherry juice in the fall, when few flowers bloom with nectar. But he would throw shrink wrap over the bins of cherries, and the bees would disappear.

This year, the bees came in the middle of the summer, and didn't go away. They'd crawl onto the wrap, and go for tiny drops of cherry syrup on the plastic. Mondella got stung. "I was outside, and we were getting swarms, hundreds of bees," Mondella said. "Well, it's not like Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds.' But you'd see a bee. And then there'd be two. And then there'd be three. And then a dozen." Soon he learned that the city had legalized beekeeping this spring, and several new beekeepers had set up nearby hives—though some insects were coming from as far away as Governors Island.

"When a beekeeper opens a bee factory next door, what can you do?" Mondella asked. With the danger of bees contaminating his cherries, and threatening his 62-year-old family business, he had to find out. He contacted the Health Department, the Brooklyn Borough President's Office, a local business development group. He hired Andrew Coté, the head of the New York City Beekeepers' Association, to come up with a solution.

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Robin Shulman

Like Mondella, the owner of the candy factory overrun by bees in 1905 was concerned. He "has lost a lot of sleep lately figuring up how much sugar he has been robbed of to keep a colony of 3,000,000 bees," the Times said (perhaps overestimating the numbers). Later, in 1911, bees at City College produced honey as green as pistachio ice cream (which might even then have itself been dyed). "Who outside of a nature-faker's book ever heard of green honey?" asked the president of the college, John Huston Finley. For a time, he suspected the bees of stealing chemicals from a biology laboratory, but then he identified their more likely source, a candy kitchen on Amsterdam Avenue.

Finley hatched a scheme to get to the bottom of the matter: He would brand each bee in the college hive with red marks on its breast and its belly, and have his students, along with boys from the nearby Hebrew Orphan Asylum and girls from the neighboring Convent of the Sacred Heart, track the bees and race to the biology department to report each spotting. What could go wrong?

The results of the survey, alas, are lost to history, and no one seems to have extended the inquiry to the cooks of the candy kitchen.

Bees on occasion make other odd choices. Instead of pollen, they have been known to gather fine yellow wood shavings from lumberyards, cornmeal from animal feed, and grain dust from mills. Instead of drinking fresh water, they will frighten families by crowding on a pool deck to suck from chlorinated puddles, or gathering on a windowsill air conditioner to slurp the dripping beads of liquid condensation.

Nobody around the cherry factory is particularly afraid of bees, or unsympathetic to the idea of them being kept in cities. Bees are necessary to pollinate cherries, after all. "If you have no bees," said Steven Leffler, the company vice president, "you have no pollination, you have no vegetables, you have no wheat, we have no trees, we have no flowers, and we have no world, okay?"

It's not clear why the bees turned to the cherry syrup. Studies show that most bees prefer flower nectar to artificial sweeteners if they have a choice. Could it be that in this year's scorching month of July, their natural source of nectar burned out, and they discovered a taste for high-fructose corn syrup? Were there too many new bees in a neighborhood with too little forage? Were Dell's cherries simply too sweet to pass up?

Nobody knows. For Mondella and Leffler at the cherry factory, the question is, What will make them stop?

Mondella suggested selling the beekeepers feeders of high-fructose corn syrup to set up near their hives, so the bees don't venture toward the factory. "I can sell them as much cherry juice as they want. I'll give it to them at cost," he said.

"They wouldn't want it," Leffler interjected. "They want natural."

Okay, then how about planting more nectar flowers, Mondella suggested.

A possibility, Leffler mused.

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Robin Shulman is a journalist currently at work on a book called Eat the City, about the history of urban food production in New York.

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