By MARY PLUMMER, OnEarth magazine
Andrew Coté tried to sweeten the deal while extolling the virtues of beekeeping to a somber-faced Department of Health panel on Wednesday. He presented a small jar of golden honey from his hives in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Technically, he was offering them contraband material. Beekeeping is illegal in New York City -- the result of a change to the city health code enacted in the 1990s, when honey bees were added to a list of prohibited animals such as lions, pit vipers and crocodiles.Coté and about a dozen other beekeepers asked the health board on Wednesday to overturn that rule and allow beekeeping in the city again, without the risk of fines."I think some sweetness in our life is appropriate," said Coté, a founding member of the New York City Beekeepers Association.Under the proposed change, which was introduced in December, hives would be legal but need to be registered. The Board of Health is expected to review today's public comments and make a decision in March.No one spoke against legalizing bees.Supporters pointed out that bees help pollinate plants and flowers, contributing to healthy harvests. They also touted beekeeping as a rewarding and educational hobby that teaches everything from patience to environmental responsibility."The bees bring so many good things," said Everett Scott, an Upper West Side resident who keeps bees out of state and would like to do it in the city. "Urban beekeeping offers a wonderful way to engage in a dynamic relationship with nature."Under the current rules, bees are labeled by the health department as "naturally inclined to do harm." People keeping bees can be fined $200 to $2,000 per violation. The health department has received 164 bee and wasp complaints since the beginning of 2009.But beekeepers say honey bees aren't aggressors like wasps and hornets."Unless you go up to a beehive and really shake it and disturb it, honey bees are really not out to sting you," said Nadia Johnson, a program coordinator at the nonprofit organization Just Food.Today's hearing follows a growing interest in New York City beekeeping, which peaked last year with a flurry of media coverage when a bill to eliminate the bee ban was introduced in the city council. When the bill went nowhere, activists turned to the city health department to change the code. Despite current laws, beekeeping has been taking place in hives hidden on rooftops across the city. Several groups teach classes on urban beekeeping, and some members sell honey produced with illegal bees at neighborhood farmers markets.Still, the law discourages some people who would like to take up the hobby. Anna Bridge has wanted to start a beehive since 2004 but has held off because it's illegal."I've had to live vicariously through the bees of others," she said.Beekeeper Grai Rice called today a big step forward. She has been working to help legalize beekeeping for years."I feel like we're at that point where it's going to be made legal," said Rice, adding that she sees beekeeping as a vital step in New York City's environmental goals. "It's this incredible, exciting moment that we really can be a green city."
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Mary Plummer originally wrote this article for OnEarth Magazine. She is an independent journalist living in New York City. Her work has been published in UWIRE, The Orange County Register, and The Yomiuri Shimbun, which is published twice daily in Japan with a circulation of more than 14 million. She was born in Anchorage, Alaska.