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Elizabeth O'Neill

Elizabeth O'Neill

Posted: June 26, 2009 01:48 PM

The Secret (and Illegal) Life of Bees

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My seat by the crimson wall in the back room of Jimmy's 43 in the East Village became increasingly uncomfortable as people packed in, shuffling into line to taste perhaps the only alcoholic beverage that is difficult to come by in this great city of New York: mead. Made from just three simple ingredients, honey, yeast and water, mead is the most ancient alcoholic drink out there and was received with delight and curiosity amidst this dynamic group of urban-agricultural enthusiasts gathered to celebrate the forth day of Pollinator Week 2009, seven days dedicated to legalizing urban beekeeping in New York City.

Paul Holm, the man behind the mead, was pretty casual about the whole thing. When asked why he is so committed to reviving such an ancient art, Paul smiles, sighs and mutters with a shrug, "Because I'm a crazy person!" Yet behind the nonchalance of this Long Island Railroad worker lies his booming Long Island Meadery that plans to celebrate its five-year anniversary this November. While he admits his main business comes from renaissance fairs, the largest customer being the Hudson Valley Mayfaire, the buzz (forgive the pun) here tonight suggests that mead--along with beekeeping--could be seeping back into the scene in the most major way since its fade-out in the mid-19th century.

While the actual brewing process can be completed in less than two hours, mead, like wine, must age for at least a year before being bottled. Most people begin by making "traditional" mead (honey, water and yeast), but the craft offers a wide opportunity to be creative. You can add all different kinds of spices and fruit including apples, pineapples, blueberries, chocolate, rosemary, even carrot. Another expert mead-maker at the event, Eileen Coles, swears by her ginger.

After I had a chance to taste Paul's extremely sweet and quite delicious traditional mead, Jacquie Berger, the executive director of JustFood.org, and the organizing force behind this event, introduced the "great unsung heroes" who help mead-makers like Paul stay business. Following a brief, captivating slide show exposing the secret world of rooftop and back-yard beekeeping in NYC, four unassuming beekeepers, two beginners and two veterans, took to the stage to dispel some common misconceptions about bees, explaining why their covert practice is not just a hobby, but an obligation.

As North America became increasingly industrialized, the wild honeybee population dwindled to just 1/4th of its original size. The colonies that are left face serious threats such as mites, pesticides and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a devastating disease that disrupts the bees' innate ability to find their way back to their hive. This tiny, very docile and greatly misunderstood pollinator is responsible not only for helping our flowers blossom, but also for bringing us avocados, almonds, zucchini, and a host of other foods essential to any New Yorker pallet. Urban bees are especially crucial for facilitating growth in the city's community gardens and parks, and are surprisingly better off than suburban colonies that face the threat of lawn pesticides and a too-narrow selection of fruits and flowers.

Learn more about this enchanting world of underground urban beekeeping by going to www.beeswithoutborders.org. To support the dedicated keepers and their mission, please express your support for David Yassky's recent motion to legalize beekeeping by contacting New York City officials Rena Bryant and Joseph Rivera.