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NYC Beekeepers Are Making Honey But Little Money

April 25, 2019

April 12, 2019


In the tiny universe of New York City beekeeping, Tom Wilk is one of the queen bees. He founded the Queens Beekeepers Guild. His business, Wilk Apiary, manages 30 hives in eight New York locations.

His honey, sold in local stores and markets, commands $20 for an 8-ounce jar. He also helps organize NYC Honey Fest, an annual event in Rockaway Beach, Queens, where thousands gather to sample and buy honey on the boardwalk.

Mr. Wilk, however, isn’t planning to quit his day job as a salesman for a wine and spirits distributor.

“I haven’t broken even yet,” he said of his sideline enterprise.

The New York City bee business, it turns out, is no honeymoon.

Upstate, where flowers are plentiful, it’s possible to extract as much 200 pounds of honey a year from a single hive. Here, you’re lucky to get 50 pounds, Mr. Wilk said. And production is only getting more challenging as urban beekeeping grows in popularity and more bees compete for a limited supply of nectar, he noted.

“Manhattan is maxed out unless you’re close to Central Park,” Mr. Wilk said. “Red Hook, maxed out. There’s very little foraging area, and every hipster in the world wants to have a beehive.”

Beekeepers are required to register their apiaries with the city’s health department; officials didn’t respond to inquiries about the number of beekeepers in the city.

Earlier this month, just after dawn, 182 beekeepers lined up in Manhattan’s Bryant Park for the square’s annual bee-distribution event, eager to pay $160 for a 3-pound box of bees—that’s roughly 12,000 insects—trucked in the night before from Georgia.

Many were strictly amateurs, including a New Jersey car dealer, a Brooklyn custodian and a television producer from Queens. But the crowd included a number of folks looking to make a little honey money.

Judi Counts, who manages an Episcopal retreat house on the Upper East Side, was buying a new colony for her rooftop hive. Last year’s colony died during the winter because of the temperature swings. “They were like, ‘Sorry. No. Done.’ ” she said.

Ms. Counts sells her honey at the annual House of the Redeemer garden party. She makes labels for the $20, 16-ounce jars that say “Sweet Redemption.” The $500 she earns just about covers the cost of keeping the bees, she said.

It’s possible, of course, to boost one’s margins with clever marketing. Queens beekeeper Ruth Harrigan, who worked on Wall Street for 20 years before establishing her first hive in 2010, commands $5 for 2-ounce portions of honey packaged in bear bottles bearing messages such as “Don’t Worry Bee Happy Honey.”

“There’s really no money to make in honey unless you are creative about it,” she said.

Her HoneyGramz line sells in 250 shops, including gourmet food stores and hospital gift shops.

It’s been so successful, Ms. Harrigan can’t meet the demand with her own production. She buys honey for the line from commercial suppliers and saves her local honey to sell in city markets. Tourists snap up her Queens and Staten Island honey packaged in travel-size, 2.8-ounce jars for $10. “They are intrigued that there are bees in New York City,” she said.

Andrew Coté, the man who trucked bees up from Georgia to sell at the Bryant Park event, is likely the city’s biggest beekeeper.

President of the New York City Beekeepers Association, he produces several thousand pounds of honey a year from the 108 hives he maintains in 25 locations, including Bryant Park, cemeteries, community gardens, abandoned parking lots and a Buddhist monastery.

But even Mr. Coté refers to himself as a sideliner rather than a commercial beekeeper.

To supplement honey sales, he offers beekeeping classes, provides bees for film and commercial shoots and offers apiary maintenance to outfits like the Durst Organization, which keeps 10 hives on the roof of its 55-story Bank of America Tower in Midtown. The real-estate developer includes honey collected by Mr. Coté in its holiday gift baskets for commercial tenants and in its conference rooms for meeting attendees.

“I’m like a pool boy for the bees,” Mr. Coté said.

Beekeeper, cardiologist and internist Patrick Fratellone gives pollen and raw local honey collected from his three hives to patients in his Manhattan practice. “It’s great for allergies,” he says.

His specialty is bee venom, which is said to be anti-inflammatory. He uses it to treat autoimmune disorders, including arthritis, stinging his patients with bees plucked from the portable hive he keeps in his office. Dr. Fratellone also uses it bee venom to treat his own tennis elbow condition, stinging himself eight times a day.

But like the city’s other beekeepers, he reports that his bee work is mainly a labor of love.

Insurance doesn’t cover bee venom, he says. Rather than charge for the sting, he asks patients to make a donation to the American Apitherapy Society, an association of health-care professionals who use bee products.

And while the venom treatments can attract new patients who have tried other things, it doesn’t ensure repeat business. “Once you sting the patient,” he said, “the patient can order their own bees and sting themselves.”