Sharing the honey, as promised…

It’s a lengthy paper, just to warn you.


Every human needs basic things to survive. Shelter, water and food are essential. With a world population nearing seven billion and still growing at an estimated rate of over one percent per year, these basic needs will get harder and harder to meet. There are already vast numbers of people who go hungry every day. We are a society world-wide, heavily reliant on agriculture to meet our food needs. Humans have been using agriculture for some 10,000 to provide for their basic needs. Humans cannot use agriculture for food by themselves though; we rely on pollination for most of our food.

Of the various pollinators, honeybees pollinate over one-third of our agricultural crops. Some estimates are even higher. Many fruits and vegetables would not exist in our food supply without the honeybee. “No bees equals no almonds, apples, cherries, plums, prunes, asparagus, carrots, celery, onions, radishes —the list goes on.” (Eaton). It is estimated that if honeybees went extinct, humankind would soon follow within four years.

Therefore we are highly reliant on these insects for sustaining our growing population and for sustaining the agricultural society that we have been for so long. That is why there was such a response of alarm to the dwindling numbers of honeybees and the hives collapses’ that was made public in 2006 and 2007. During the winter, there was an average loss reported of 38% in the U.S. by beekeepers (Just Food). This wasn’t just bees, it was entire colony loss. And the loss was happening in ways that had previously not been seen.

The alarm was justified, research began to flourish with honeybees and public policy with regard to honeybees was on the rise as well. Several of our highest yielding national crops are completely dependent on honeybees, such as our almond crops in California, and therefore our U.S. economy is actually dependent on honeybees as well. Commercial beekeepers will truck in bee colonies all the way across the U.S. just for the pollinating season.

The U.S. also produces around 163 million pounds of honey each year, multiply that by a bare minimum of ten dollars per pound of honey and we could have yet another substantial crop loss for our economy with colony loss (“Apiculture.”). With commercial beekeepers reporting vast colony losses, as high as over 8,000 colonies lost to the largest operations, the colony collapses’ became important not just to the beekeepers, but became seen as a potential threat to the very structure of our economy and survival of the U.S.

Scientists set to work trying to understand what could be causing the colonies to collapse and began to outline symptoms to give the disorder a name. The research produced a name for the epic honeybee problem, calling it Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The USDA then delineates their plan to figure out what to do about CCD and to research it further (Kaplan). The USDA was rightly concerned to set a plan in action citing that, “Pollination is a critical element in agriculture, as honey bees pollinate more than 130 crops in the United States and add $15 billion in crop value annually” (Kaplan).

Politicians were also taking note and beekeeping bans were lifted in many urban areas across America. Citizens were becoming more alarmed, informed about the issue and increasing pressure on their representatives to create policies that would aid the honeybees. A bill was introduced to the 110th Congress during 2007-2008 “to amend the administrative requirements for conservation programs administered by the Department of Agriculture to ensure a greater emphasis on increasing habitat for native and managed pollinators and establishing cropping systems, integrated pest management regimes, and other practices to protect native and managed pollinators, and for other purposes” (H.R. 2913). The bill was titled H.R. 2913: Pollinator Habitat Protection Act of 2007.

There was also another bill that was introduced this same year. “A bill to authorize resources for sustained research and analysis to address colony collapse disorder and the decline of North American pollinators” (S. 1694). This bill was titled S. 1694: Pollinator Protection Act of 2007. Sadly both of these bills died. They were never voted on. Even though these bills did not make it to a vote in congress, the bills did have an impact on public policy. From this year on, both citizens and politicians became more aware of CCD and the dangers that it could impose on America and its citizens. The wider public has an increase in its awareness.

By the mid 2000’s a few well publicized government buildings had honeybee colonies set up on their premises, such as Chicago’s City Hall, which started with two hives on its rooftop and now is home to six colonies. After CCD was brought to the public’s attention so were the colonies on public buildings. Urban dwellers wanted in on helping the honeybees survive just as much as rural farmers. Then in 2009, even the White House produced 134 pounds of honey from a colony installed into the organic garden of the First Lady (Goodridge). The honeybees were on radar of the whole nation.

Many large cities had thriving hives of honeybee activists by this time. Urban beekeeping was on the rise and cities like London, Paris, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle had legal and very enthusiastic citizens participating. One city that usually is a leader was missing from this list; New York. And its citizens had definitely noticed.

The ban on beekeeping in New York City had been put into place back in 1999 by the Giuliani administration. This had happened because the honeybee was added to the list of dangerous animals; a list that also included lions, crocodiles, and pit vipers (Just Foods). Honeybees could no longer be kept within city limits and this new ban carried a fine of up to 2,000 dollars if violated (Just Food). This was added to health code section 161.01 and included honeybees as venomous insects under wild animals (Crossfield). Honeybees however are of minimal risk to beekeepers and fellow citizens.

In fact a city offers countless higher risks to its citizens than local honeybees, even a city’s dogs and bike messengers could hold a higher potential safety risk than a honeybee colony (Harmon). The greatest threat that most people will point out of beekeeping is bee stings. Though this is a possibility with honeybees, it is actually rare. Honeybees are quite gentle and don’t often sting. “Severe reactions from the sting of any one insect in a year are 1 in 5,555,556. The chance that someone will be hit by a car is 59.3% higher” (Just Food).

Honeybees are part of the Apis family, which is distinguished by their production of honey and wax, as well as being social creatures. They are often confused with other stinging insects such as wasps, yellow jackets and hornets, which are of the Vespid family and much more aggressive. In fact, only the Queen and female worker bees have stingers, male drones do not. These other insects of the Vespid family that are confused with honeybees also can sting multiple times, where honeybees do not. Honeybees have barbs on their stingers that leave the stinger behind in rare cases when they do sting, along with part of their abdomen causing death for any honeybees that sting. Hornet, yellow-jackets and wasps do not die when they sting and are also not fuzzy, vegetarian, social, colonial, or producers in the sense that honeybees are.

Honeybees even more rarely sting when away from their hives. This creates even less potential threats in a city setting in which citizens who are not beekeeping hold their concerns. As countless beekeepers have pointed out, they are docile creatures and as long as they are well kept they should not feel threatened into defense.

Many beekeepers also will point out that individuals that think that they are allergic to bees are in fact not allergic to honeybees but to stinging insects from the Vespid family. “Only 0.4% of Americans report an allergy to insect stings in the U.S., and almost none of these are caused by honeybees. In addition, less than 1% of the US population is at risk of systemic reaction to stings by honeybees” (Just Food). Education is always fundamental to positive change. As New York beekeepers and honeybee activists banded together to fight the ban on the honeybee in NYC, this is one of the areas that the Health Department had to look into further.

The wider movement of the early 2000’s in New York City to legalize beekeeping began as a grassroots effort through an organization called Just Foods, who banded together with other organizations, citizens, gardeners, and a few politicians also concerned with the honeybee ban. Their ultimate goals were to raise public awareness, influence the Health Department to change its policy, and to provide a network of resources to current and prospective beekeepers (Just Food).

Their first step was meeting with Councilmember David Yassky to come up with a bill that would legalize beekeeping regardless of the Health Department’s code in case they were unable to get the Department to review the policy (Just Food). According to Just Food, meeting with Yassky happened in March of 2008 and by January 28th of 2009 the bill was introduced, along with a press release. The organization, meanwhile, had also increased awareness in the public with the publication of a fact sheet outlining the issue and started a public petition to the NYC Health Department to reform code 161 (Just Food). By the spring of 2009 Just Food was able to submit the petition with over 3,000 signatures (Just Food).

The Just Food organization continued to work with the community and other organizations to increase public awareness with many local events including a Beekeeper’s Ball as part of NYC Pollinator’s Week during June 2009 (Stern). The support prevalent at the Ball was publicized by many news forums and included as wide of celebrations as honey infused vendors, to citizens dressed up in bee costumes (Eaton). Other events included a Hidden Hives tour (viewable online), rallies at City Hall, local honey tasting, and a Honey Festival (Just Food). Within the week of the festivities, the NYC Health Department asked Just foods to hold a meeting to figure out possible amendment options to code 161.

The month of July saw two meet ups with the Health Department that Just Foods called “productive and promising” (Just Food). The Year of 2009 showed many gains and movement in getting the beekeeping ban lifted. By the end of the year, in December of 2009 the Health Department held their quarterly meeting and announced that they had code 161.01 on their agenda for review, with plans to amend the ban on beekeeping (Just Food).

On February 3rd of 2010 a public hearing was held in which citizens could testify on behalf of lifting the ban set by Health code 161.01 (Crossfield). Nearly 80 individuals and organizations such as Just food spoke to legislators, asking for an amendment (Just Food). The citizen were heard, just over a month later, at its meeting on March 16th the Health Department’s Board approves the amendment and beekeeping is no longer an illegal practice (Just Food).

As promised and pointed out by Just foods in their Legalize Beekeeping in NYC Fact Sheet, beekeeping once legal could be made more safe by policies already in place and being run by the state of New York, as well as through organizations like themselves and the New York Beekeeper Association to implement education, safety materials and provide resources and support to city beekeepers. Just such actions have happened since the lift on the ban. Hives and beekeepers that were once secret are now legal and access to increased education, support and safety have been made possible. Beekeepers can now use the state programs without fear of the punishment. Aspiring beekeepers now have many safe and legal resources at hand to implement their colonies safely.

Overall the outcome of this policy change has been a positive one. There have not been any accounts of increased safety risks since the lift of the ban. In fact the education on honeybees that brought forth the policy change has only further increased safety with regard to honeybees and citizens of NYC. Where there are flowers, fruits and vegetables, there will be honeybees whether we provide the colonies habitat or the honeybees make their habitat on their own. Keeping colonies safely with urban beekeeping benefits both the honeybees and society.

With over 600 urban gardens and farms in NYC according to Just Food, honeybees will be in the city whether policies are in place to keep the public and their keepers safe or not. With the large population in a city like New York, we need all those urban farms and community gardens to help feed the population. Policies that promote this safety make a lot more sense than bans, especially after further education on the perceived risks of honeybees verses actual risks. Through the campaign of Just Food, it was evident that the honeybees weren’t the only citizens of NYC that were going to do their job of collecting honey despite the ban. Beekeepers were going to keep on keeping whether it was legal or not and lifting the ban made more sense for the production and safety of everyone involved. After all, you get more bees with honey than with vinegar.

 

Works Cited

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