LOWER MANHATTAN — The Dutch weren't the only ones to settle New Amsterdam in the early 1600s, at the southern tip of what's now Manhattan.
Several thousand other colonists also arrived with the European founders of New York City — but these pioneers had wings.
“Honeybees first landed in Lower Manhattan with the Dutch,” said Guillermo Fernandez, 43, a hobbyist beekeeper. “Right in Battery Park there were probably little Dutch homes with their gardens and their beehives.”
It’s that special connection with history that pushed Fernandez, 43, to ask the Battery Conservancy a few years ago if he could set up hives in the Battery Conservancy Gardens, a lush swath of organic greenery that includes the 1-acre Battery Urban Farm.
Fernandez and three of his fellow members of NYC Beekeeping, an organization of bee enthusiasts that offers beekeeping courses in cooperation with the Parks Department, first starting placing hives in the Battery’s gardens in 2011 — just a year after beekeeping became legal in New York City.
This year, they have six hives — two more than last year — filled with about a thousand bees apiece, situated on a corner of that park that's just across from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
And soon, Fernandez said, they'll be able to collect pounds of the season's first batch of honey.
"They have a honey flow — an excess of honey that we take — around later June or July, which produces a lighter honey, then again in September," Fernandez said. "That honey is darker — the color and tastes depends on the flowers and plants that they feed on, but it all tastes great."
Fernandez, a marketing director, decided to head Downtown with his idea for hives a few years ago because his 21-story Chelsea apartment building didn't want him popping boxes of bees on the roof for his newfound hobby.
But now, he said, he’s happy to have a Battery Park home for his bees — despite having had two of last year’s four hives washed away during Hurricane Sandy.
“It’s been wonderful here,” Fernandez said. “Our bees help pollinate the fruits and vegetables on the farm — and we get to tend to our bees in this beautiful corner of Manhattan, where they can feed on organically grown flowers for their delicious honey.”
As an extra nod to the bees' — and New York City's — Dutch heritage, this year, they decided to paint all six of the hives in the style of classic Dutch homes. And, the new queen bee of their colony is named Queen Maxima — the recently crowned young queen of the Netherlands.
But it wasn’t just the tasty supply of honey that inspired Fernandez to take up his beekeeping hobby.
For the past several years, bees across the country have been mysteriously dying out for reasons scientists have still not been able to pinpoint, and about one-third of the fruits and vegetables that we eat are dependent on the pollination of bees.
Those facts set off an alarm for Fernandez.
“I didn’t get the chance to know him well, but my grandfather in Cuba used to have a farm and keep bees,” Fernandez said. “And after I learned about all these bees dying, and how dependent we are on them, I felt a connection, and thought I could do something about it, at least on a small scale.”
Fernandez donates the honey his bees produce to charities, including the Battery Urban Farm, a farm that's used to teach more than 2,000 city students about agriculture — and what it’s like to actually grow and tend crops.
He also gets to work with the farm for honey tastings, and to teach children about how honey is made. It's a process that often changes a youngster's fear of the stinging bee into sense of wonderment about the little, but important, insects, he said.
His hives are also used for training other beekeepers-to-be. This Saturday at 11 a.m., a host of beekeepers will come to check out the hives, along with the thousands of bees working to create honey from the nectar they suck up from surrounding flower blossoms. Visitors are welcome to watch, from a bit of a distance, Fernandez said.
"Our bees are bred to be docile," Fernandez said. "But you have to know what you're doing when you check the hives, something we do about once a week or so — to see how the honey is flowing, or if there are any spiders, mites or things that may cause a problem."
"It's actually a really nice hobby," he added. "We help them, and they help us. You grow to care about them. But, you know, it doesn't demand the attention of a puppy."