Humans and honey bees have a sweet relationship that stretches far back in time. An 8,000-year-old cave painting in Spain depicts a man raiding a wild honey bee nest. King Tut’s tomb contained sealed jars of honey, reportedly still edible after more than 3,200 years. And medieval monks kept their honey bees in domed straw skeps, producing the beeswax for the candles that lit cathedrals throughout Europe. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Leo Tolstoy, Sir Edmund Hillary—all were beekeepers. From the traditional mud hive still used in Egypt to the movable-frame modern beehive, humans have become proficient at exploiting a natural process perfected by an insect whose ancestors evolved to pollinate flowers tens of millions of years before we walked upright.
“Strictly speaking,” wrote Sue Hubbell in A Book of Bees, “one never ‘keeps’ bees—one comes to terms with their wild nature.” The wild nature of Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, is part of the intrigue of beekeeping as a growing number of city dwellers discover the joy of keeping hives. Whether part of the trend toward urban agriculture or a response to reports of colony-collapse disorder, a recent crisis in which large populations of honey bees suddenly die, urban beekeeping is on the rise. Even the White House now hosts 70,000 bees in a hive near the South Lawn’s organic vegetable garden, with the harvested honey being given as state gifts or used in the honey ale craft-brewed in the presidential kitchen.
Until recently, keeping bees in large cities like New York was often a clandestine hobby, with beekeepers taking pains to keep their hives secret. But many cities have legalized beekeeping, with New York joining Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and San Francisco in approving urban hives. Beekeepers must adhere to published guidelines, which might include lot size, cleanliness, provision of water, and advice on managing the honey bee colony’s natural swarming instinct.