Honeybees help at least 30% of crops grow. The half-inch buzzers pollinate all kinds of plants – they’re needed to grow almond trees, vanilla vines, avocados, and cranberries.
Since 2017, bees have also become an integral part of a New York City Police Department (NYPD) building in Queens. On the roof of the 104th precinct, officer Darren Mays keeps more than 30,000 honeybees. By night, he’s a beat cop, patrolling the streets of the Ridgewood, Queens neighbourhood. But by day, he’s a beekeeper in charge of the department’s only rooftop hive.
Mays gained temporary fame this summer when he vacuumed up a migrating swarm of bees that perched atop a hot dog cart umbrella in Times Square.
Mays and another officer, Michael Lauriano, are responsible for responding to any issue a New Yorker calls in with that involves a “stinging insect.” He said he responds to about a dozen calls during a typical summer, as people request help with bee swarms, wasps nests, and more. Before Mays and Lauriano, an officer named Anthony ‘Tony Bees’ Planakis served as the NYPD’s first bee 911 responder.
But the hive on top of the precinct where Mays works wasn’t a planned part of his job. It formed out of necessity: During the summer of 2017, Mays answered so many bee calls (roughly two dozen), that he didn’t have time to bring recovered bees to his house outside the city, where he keeps five bee colonies. Instead, he assembled a makeshift bee orphanage on top of the office.
I stopped by the rooftop hive last week to check out the yellow-and-black invertebrates there. They’re now working quickly to produce honey before the temperature shifts and they go into survival mode for the winter.
Take a look.
You’d never know from the street level that there’s a colony of bees on this roof in Ridgewood, Queens.
Mays didn’t always like working with bees. He grew up on a farm in South Carolina and knew plenty of people who raised honeybees, but he said he wanted “nothing to do with it” and thought honey was gross.
Mays even intentionally kicked over a honey bee colony once, while horsing around with his brother, when he was a kid.
“I felt so bad later, once I really got into beekeeping,” he said.
Then, about 10 years ago, when Mays was 38 years old, a friend showed him a hive. As an adult, Mays was transfixed by the bees’ work. He watched them toil for a full hour. “They live in a perfect society,” he said. “There’s no boss, there’s no governor, even the queen doesn’t rule the colony.”
At the precinct, Mays helped me put on a beekeeping hat, jacket, and gloves so we could safely look inside the hive.
A bee hive is a cooperative space in which everyone knows their role. Worker bees collect pollen and nectar, build the hive, and provide air conditioning, while a single queen lays eggs and releases chemicals that help guide the workers.
Source: National Geographic
But Mays said one type of bee — male drone bees — are utterly “useless” for the hive.
That’s true on a hyperlocal level. Drones typically mate with a queen from another nearby colony, not their own, which could be their mum.
“They get kicked out as it gets colder,” Mays said. “Because they don’t do anything – they don’t sting, they don’t forage to collect pollen or nectar, or anything.”
You can tell drone bees apart from other bees by their slightly fatter bodies and bigger eyes. If they manage to successfully mate with a queen, they die instantly, since their stomach and genitals are ripped right off in the process.
Mays said he finds it therapeutic to watch the bees calmly working. Enclosed in my safety net, it did seem meditative.
Working with the bees helps him relieve stress, Mays added.
“You feel the vibration on your hands,” he said. “It’s just soothing to watch them work and not fight among each other.”
He showed me racks of capped and uncapped honey. The bees’ progress and the neat symmetry of the honeycombs tells Mays that the queen is healthy and producing good new workers.
Mays estimated that he has about 30,000 to 40,000 bees on the roof right now. That number will fall in the coming months — to about 5,000 — and the bees will slow down and huddle together to stay warm for the winter.
There are already some seasonal changes happening in the colony. Mays can tell the bees’ diet has shifted, for example.
They have started relying on a local Japanese Knotweed bush for sustenance, he said. And now they’re producing “a dark coloured honey, which is very good.”
Just as I was getting comfortable with the bees and wondering why we really needed all this gear, the buzzing started getting louder. Mays said the bees were getting angry, since we’d upset their daily grind.
He started to pack up the hive, and in the process, he got stung twice through his clothing. Mays described the feeling of a bee sting like a burning sensation, estimating he’s probably gotten stung fewer than 20 times this season. He said that even after a decade of beekeeping, it still hurts every time.
Bee sting venom contains proteins that make the area around a bite swell. Fortunately, Mays isn’t allergic to the stings, but more than one million people in the US are. For those individuals, stings can trigger deadly reactions.
It took the bees about 20 minutes to really get buzzing. But Mays quickly and gently rearranged the drawers and sealed the top, quieting the hive.
Across New York City, nearly 300 rooftop, backyard, and neighbourhood beehives are registered with the Department of Health. But nationwide, bee populations are dwindling.
Annual bee counts have been decreasing across the US since 2010, according to the US Department of Agriculture. A recent report in The New York Times suggests more frequent droughts and suburban sprawl may be partly to blame.
Mays is quick to defend honeybees, especially when reminded of the swarm that caused a stir over the summer in Times Square. “It’s not a crime,” he said of their swarming behaviour.
Swarming is just part of life when you’re a bee looking for a new home.
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