The Latest Buzz on the Upper East Side

10,000 bees went to town on Lexington Avenue yesterday

Monday, Jun 29, 2009  |  Updated 10:55 AM CDT
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Didn't you know that life is sweet on the Upper East Side, honey?

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An urban bee-wrangler says a swarm of at least 8,000 honeybees will be getting a new home after causing a buzz of excitement on the Upper East Side.

A group of as many as 10,000 honeybees quietly made their home in a hive in a tree on Lexington Avenue between 80th and 81th streets without attracting the attention of their fellow Upper East Siders.  All that changed when the queen bee decided to go for a Sunday stroll at about 4 pm yesterday, and her minions followed.

"It was a 3-foot column of bees," said stunned eyewitness Doug Becker.

Onlookers applauded as the NYPD's beekeeper -- the NYPD has a beekeeper! -- Officer Anthony Planakis, corralled the huge swarm. The bee tour group proceeded half a block before buzzing back to the hive.

Planakis said the bees would be taken "to a farm in Connecticut to pollinate." Just last week, bee enthusiasts gathered on the steps of City Hall to push a bill that would legalize beekeeping in New York City.

Despite city regulations prohibiting it, hundreds of New Yorkers have kept beehives on rooftops and backyard gardens for years, defying the law in their efforts to create something sustainable in the urban environment.

They're people like 61-year-old Deborah Romano, a gardener and first-time beekeeper in Brooklyn. She had hopes of selling honey at the city's various green markets — but that dream was put on hold when a complaint drew city inspectors, she was ordered to pay a fine and her hive was removed.

"I grew up in the 60s; I haven't always been law-abiding," Romano joked. "But really, I wasn't thinking about the legality of it. I was more thinking about the company I'd be keeping," she said, referring to the family of President Barack Obama, which recently installed a hive in the south lawn of the White House.

It's an issue that has bee enthusiasts, well, abuzz. More than a dozen gathered Tuesday on the steps of City Hall in support of Romano and to push a city bill that would legalize beekeeping in the nation's largest metropolis.

The New York City Health Code prohibits keeping bees and more than 100 other wild animals, including iguanas, venomous snakes, ferrets and elephants. The Health Department maintains that bees are venomous insects that can sting people and in some cases cause a severe allergic reaction.

So far this year, the Health Department has received 49 bee or wasp complaints. Nine inspections have been conducted, and just four summonses have been issued.

But those in favor of city beekeeping point out that honeybees help pollinate plants and flowers. Beekeepers, they said, are performing a public service. Beekeeping is currently legal in cities including Chicago; Atlanta; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Seattle; Minneapolis; Toronto; and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Honeybees are "the least likely to sting you," as opposed to wasps and hornets, said Jackie Berger, executive director of Just Food, a New York-based group supporting sustainable food sources.

"Unless you go up and kick their hive, they're really not interested in people," she said. "For them, a sting is a suicide mission. They do not survive it. So it's really a last-ditch effort of a honeybee."

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said the proposal to legalize beekeeping would impose a licensing system on all city beekeepers.

"Right now we have the worst of both worlds. We have people who want to engage in this activity but they don't want to be outlawed. Meanwhile, you have an underground beekeeping world that we're not regulating at all," he said.

"We know a lot of people are keeping bees," he said. "What we don't know is whether all of them know what they're doing."

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