By David Grunebaum
Special to DNAinfo
UPPER WEST SIDE — Eight high school sophomores stood on the roof of their school, their heads and upper bodies covered with white cotton suits and their faces covered in heavy screened masks.
But the uniforms weren't part of a hazardous materials drill. They were the typical garb the students wear to protect themselves from bee stings as part of their high school class on urban beekeeping.
"I'm not planning on being a beekeeper after high school, but this is an exciting class I'll never forget," said Upper East Sider Olivia Matticoli, 15, a 10th grader at York Prep, a private school on West 68th Street near Central Park.
The class is led by instructor and expert beekeeper Andrew Cote, who founded the the New York City Beekeepers Association and manages 40 hives across New York City that he estimates churn out about 4,000 pounds of honey a year. The city lifted its ban on urban beekeeping last March, under pressure from those who defended beekeeping as safe and sustainable. it had been legal until former Mayor Rudy Giuliani added bees to the list of dangerous banned animals in 1999.
Cote, who's been working with bees for three decades and eschewed the beekeeper's suit for a recent class, explained to students how to create and maintain a beehive. The school has five wooden hives on its rooftop, which are expected to produce about 500 pounds of honey this year, Cote said.
"That's right, these bees, just get them off with your finger, no big deal," Cote told a group of rapt students during a demonstration on the roof, "You check and make sure the Queen is alive, and she is."
"Now's the part where they're going to start flying around in a minute," Cote warned, as another student told the others not to freak out.
Then Cote poured 12,000 bees in a buzzing black stream into one of the school's beehives.
"We wanted to give students a unique experience to help stimulate their interest in science," said Ronald Stewart, the school’s headmaster.
"This is so unusual for a high school student to do so I'm kind of fascinated by it," said student Ensok Kim, 16. "We’ve learned what we need to do for the bees so that they can take care of themselves.”
"A lot of people are actually afraid of bees," Kim added, "I get a chance to actually interact with bees and they're not as scary as people think they are, so it's really cool."
The course includes hands-on experience maintaining hives and extracting honey, along with lessons on the environment and bee biology. "I want these students to fully understand and appreciate how important bees are to the food chain," Cote said.
The school bottled up some of its honey in a plastic container, with the blue and white label "York Prep" on it.
"It's really good," Matticoli gushed. "I use it at home."