MIKE BARRETT does not have much of a yard at his two-story row house in Astoria, Queens. But that fact has not kept him from his new hobby of beekeeping — he put the hive on his roof. When it was harvest time this fall, he just tied ropes around each of the two honey-filled boxes in the hive, and lowered them to the ground.
Eventually, Mr. Barrett loaded the boxes into his car, took off his white beekeeper suit and set off for a commercial kitchen in Brooklyn. There, along with other members of the New York City beekeeping club, he extracted his honey, eventually lugging home 40 pounds of the stuff.
He was happy with his successful harvest, but he also reaped something he did not expect. “I was surprised how much I really care about the bees,” said Mr. Barrett, 49, a systems administrator for New York University, in reflecting on his inaugural season as a beekeeper. “You start to think about the ways to make their lives better.”
Until last spring, Mr. Barrett would have been breaking the law and risking a $2,000 fine for engaging in his sticky new hobby. But in March, New York City made beekeeping legal, and in so doing it joined a long list of other municipalities, from Denver to Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Salt Lake City, that have also lifted beekeeping bans in the last two years. Many towns, like Hillsboro, Ore., have done the same, and still other places, like Oak Park, Ill., and Santa Monica, Calif., are reconsidering their prohibitions.
Nationwide, hives are being tucked into small backyards and set alongside driveways; even the White House has installed some. Beekeeping classes are filling up quickly, and new beekeeping clubs are forming at the same time that established ones are reporting large jumps in membership.
At Mr. Barrett’s club, for instance, membership has more than doubled, to about 900, in the last year. In Los Angeles, the Backwards Beekeepers club has 400 members — up from six members two years ago. And in Denver, a club that was formed last year already boasts a roster of 200.
“Everyone who teaches a beekeeping course is finding themselves popular all of a sudden,” said James Fischer, 53, an instructor at New York City Beekeeping.
One force behind this rise of beekeeping is the growing desire for homegrown and organic food. Another, more complex one is the urge to stem the worrisome decline in the nation’s bee population.
The number of bees has been falling since the end of World War II, when farmers stopped rotating crops with clover, a good pollen source for bees, and started using fertilizers. Pesticides and herbicides became common as well. In cities, native plants were ripped out in favor of exotic ones that were not good for bees.
Then, four years ago, honey bee colonies mysteriously started to die around the country. This drop-off, called colony collapse disorder, added to the mounting health problems, like mites and diseases, that bees are facing. About 30 percent of the country’s managed colonies have died; around a third of the deaths are related to colony collapse disorder, according to the Agriculture Department.
“We don’t know the primary cause, but we know the combination of poor nutrition, heavy pesticide use and bee diseases have put bees into a tailspin,” said Marla Spivak, an entomology professor at the University of Minnesota and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her work on honey-bee health.
Whatever the cause of colony collapse disorder, “People want to feel that they are doing something to help,” said Dave Mendes, president of the American Beekeeping Federation in Atlanta. “Having a few beehives in your backyard can make you feel better.”
But beekeeping is forbidden in many places. Some of the bans arose after World War II. Cities, seeking to eradicate any traces of agriculture within their limits in order to show they were full-fledged municipalities, forbade the raising of livestock, chicken and other creatures used in food production. Another wave of prohibitions came 20 years ago with the arrival of “killer bees” from Mexico. “People thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to die, my kids are going to die and my dogs are going to die,’ ” said Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine in Medina, Ohio. “At the time, people didn’t know what killer bees would do because they kept moving.” (Fortunately, the bees turned out not to be the threat that people feared.)
Nurturing flowers, fruits and vegetables is another factor in the rise in beekeeping, and it ranks high for Marygael Meister, who runs the Denver Beekeepers Association. In 2008, when Ms. Meister took a beekeeping class and set up two hives in her backyard in Denver, her goal was to help her more than 300 rosebushes thrive.
Ms. Meister said she had initially called the city information line and had been told it was legal to keep bees. The information was incorrect, and she received a cease-and-desist order when a neighbor complained about her hives. But instead of giving up, Ms. Meister decided to fight, showing the zeal of the nation’s new crop of beekeepers.
“I was livid,” Ms. Meister said. “I really enjoyed my bees and it was not like I was keeping a mountain lion in my backyard. It was absurd to me that the city was perpetuating the idea that Denver is so green and we’re not.”
Ms. Meister spent the next five months urging city officials to legalize beekeeping. In November 2008, the Denver City Council did so, and shortly thereafter Ms. Meister started the city’s first beekeeping club.
But legalization does not give beekeepers free rein. Cities often impose conditions on beekeepers — an annual fee, a permit, a minimum required distance between hives and nearby structures.
The City of Minneapolis, which legalized beekeeping last year, has set particularly stringent restrictions. Besides paying a $100 annual fee per hive, beekeepers there must obtain signed permission from all the neighbors within a 100-foot radius of the hives, and for neighbors within a 300-foot radius, they need 80 percent of the signatures.
For Jacquelynn Goessling, having her neighbors sign off on her hives was hardly a problem. People in her Minneapolis neighborhood of Kingfield, which she calls a “hotbed of liberal politics,” were so supportive that some wanted to host one of her hives in their own yards, or to help by planting their gardens with the kinds of flowers bees like. “Power to the bees” became a rallying cry for many of her friends. A year later, she has 12 hives citywide.
Ms. Goessling has also forged new relationships with neighbors — including the grumpy ones. Since she became the neighborhood’s “bee lady,” people want to buy her honey, either with cash or in trade for things like raspberry jam. Grateful neighbors also tell her they are getting more apples on their trees and, for the first time, seeing fruit on their arctic kiwi plants.
Eventually, Ms. Goessling would like to become a full-time beekeeper. She will be working with a local business center this winter to draft a business plan.
“If I could make $50,000 from bees, I’d quit my job so I could spend more time with my kids and have the summers off,” said Ms. Goessling, 48, a database administrator.
As Ms. Goessling dreams of a new career, other bee lovers, like Daniel Salisbury of Santa Monica, are fighting for the same opportunity.
Santa Monica models itself as an environmentally conscious city, but it has long banned beekeeping. So when city inspectors found three hives in Daniel Salisbury’s backyard two years ago, they insisted he move them. He took the hives north to his mother’s house in San Luis Obispo County, where beekeeping is legal, but he also began a drive to legalize hives in Santa Monica.
He has become so well known that people at his city-owned trailer park call to alert him when exterminators, retained by the Santa Monica housing agency, are headed toward bee swarms.
“I would chase down the swarms and literally run with my clippers to get the branch before Orkin showed up,” said Mr. Salisbury, 47, an antiques dealer, referring to a large pest-control company.
Over the last two years, Mr. Salisbury has attended Santa Monica City Council meetings, recruited a Los Angeles beekeeping club to help, and launched an e-mail legalization campaign joined by hundreds worldwide. On Tuesday, the Santa Monica City Council is scheduled to reconsider the beekeeping ban, and supporters of legalization are optimistic.
Max Wong, a Los Angeles beekeeper who has been helping Mr. Salisbury with his drive, hopes to wield some of the same political techniques in a legalization push in her city. Beekeeping rules there are a patchwork, with the hobby legal on one side of a street and illegal on the other.
“We’re in trouble and the bees are in trouble,” said Ms. Wong, 42, a member of the Backwards Beekeepers club. “We need to do something.”
Ms. Wong, a film producer who started keeping bees a year ago, wants to legalize bees not just to help hobbyists like herself, but to help feed and employ others. She sees bees as the best way to increase vegetable pollination in local community gardens and thinks that some people, like a few members of her club, could even become professional beekeepers.
Like Mr. Barrett from Queens and other new beekeepers, Ms. Wong is developing a close relationship with her bees, and she wants to ensure that others can enjoy the hobby as much as she does.
“It’s like having 35,000 pets,” she said. “I’m hyperactive, so anything that shuts down my brain is a good thing. When I’m working at a hive, I’m quiet and meditative.”