I found out that there were people breaking the law to keep bees in NYC and I decided I wanted to break the law, too.
Meg Paska is an urban beekeeper, backyard farmer, and self-sustainability advocate living in the backwoods of Brooklyn, New York. Her adventures detail on raising chickens in a small backyard, brewing beer in the basement, and harvesting honey on rooftops will be richly explored in a forthcoming book. In the meantime, she keeps the wonderfully robust blog, Brooklyn Homesteader.
Bees sort of came into my life through a series of experiences in self-sufficiency over the years. I always enjoyed being outside and had an affinity for gardening and, more importantly, eating. I'm rather self-indulgent by nature. I got really into cooking and eating which led to gardening because I thought I'd end up with better food in my belly. I got into home-brewing because I liked being drunk and thought it made more sense financially to just do it myself. At a home-brew meet-up, I met a guy who made mead from his own brand of honey, foraged by his bees. A light bulb went off in my head. I could have more vegetables in my garden, honey, and make wine from it? I signed up for a short course that season and planned to keep bees in my then-hometown of Baltimore.
And how did you go from Baltimore to Brooklyn's foremost beekeeper?
The Baltimore beekeeping plan fell through. My boyfriend at the time dumped me, and I had to get out of town. I came to NYC, got a nice job—this was back when there were actually jobs to be had—and a great apartment with cool landlords. I was doing pretty well except for the fact that sitting behind a desk eight to nine hours a day was not agreeing with me. I found out that there were people breaking the law to keep bees in NYC and I decided I wanted to break the law, too, mostly because the law sounded really stupid. Honeybees were categorized with dingos and hyenas as dangerous and unsuitable for city life. I asked my landlords and neighbors if they were cool with keeping some hives, and I was lucky—they all said yes! So that spring I set up my first hive on my rooftop. Media was just picking up on the urban beekeeping thing, and I wasn't really hiding what I was doing, so I got a fair amount of exposure for it and people just started emailing me and calling me to see if I'd set up hives for them. It was pretty crazy because at the time I didn't really know what I was doing. I mean, I took the classes and read the books, but none of that prepares you for what is waiting for you inside those seemingly innocuous wooden boxes.
What exactly is going on those boxes?
A lot. The average hive maintained by humans will have about 60,000 bees in it or more during the nectar flow. 85 percent of those bees are workers—reproductively immature females—which are basically hanging around tidying up, feeding brood and other bees, building comb, removing their dead sisters and brothers—drones—and guarding the hive from invaders. After a few weeks of housework, they start foraging in the field for water, nectar, pollen, and tree resin that they convert into a substance called propolis. It helps to stabilize and sanitize the hive. Bees like a clean house. You've got one lone queen in there as well, laying on average about 1,200 eggs a day, though some can lay up to 2,000. About 15 percent of the remaining bees are drones which are only really present to mate with virgin queens in the area. They are often so clumsy they can't feed themselves adequately, so workers have to do that for them as well. In the hive, "girls rule, boys drool" is very much the name of the game.
Do you make a living solely from keeping bees?
I think if you are trying to make a living only selling urban honey you'll quickly find that you'd need to have many hives, we're talking hundreds, spread out all over the city. Running all over the place throughout the season doing routine inspections and then going to collect honey a couple times a season is not exactly time well spent. Time is money, so in order to make a living being a beekeeper, you've gotta diversify! I teach classes, consult restaurants and businesses on managing their own hives and marketing their honey, write articles on beekeeping for related publications, and got myself a book deal to round the whole thing out. I also write about and teach gardening, raising backyard livestock, and other topics related to urban self-sufficiency. I'm not rolling in cash, but I can pay my bills most of the time and get to avoid doing work that I feel in the grand scheme of things does harm to people and the environment or does absolutely nothing to improve either.
Wouldn't it be easier, and prettier, to set up shop out in the country? What's keeping you in New York City?
NYC has lots of great culture and food and activities to do. I'm not quite ready to commit to the life of a rural steward of the land. People ask me that question all the time and I always think: Why shouldn't I do these sorts of things here? If anything, the city needs more urban farmers. We're helping to reshape people's perception of what is really possible here. You don't have to come to NYC just to be a writer or fashion designer. You can do anything here, mostly because there are resources here to make it possible. Some of my best friends are beekeepers, herbalists, and urban farmers, or are people who support those lifestyles. Most of the things I do when I'm not working relate to what I do when I am working. New York is a shitshow, but it really teaches one to hustle.
And what advice would you give for the kid who wants to make a go at the farming life?
Try and land an apprenticeship at a small diversified farm, a place that grows a variety of crops and has some livestock. You can get a feel for what type of farming floats your boat and aim to work for farms that are a bit more streamlined. Expect long hours, wear sunscreen, and throw away your computer!