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Urban Beekeeper Keeps Upper West Side Buzzing

By Leslie Albrecht | November 16, 2010 6:55am

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — A townhouse near the American Museum of Natural History has a secret tucked in its concrete backyard: two hives, home to about 100,000 bees.

They belong to Walker Stevenson, a 51-year-old database developer who took up beekeeping this past spring after he took a class with the nonprofit group New York City Beekeeping.

Beekeeping in the city was outlawed in 1999 under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but in March the honey-making hobby was legalized again, opening the door for a new crop of bee enthusiasts to try their hand at caring for the buzzing critters and harvesting their honey.

Stevenson says he knows of at least two other beekeepers on the Upper West Side — one on West 77th Street and one on West 84th Street.  The neighborhood is well-suited to bees because it's wedged between Central Park and Riverside Park, which are both full of nectar-producing trees and flowers.

As for the exact location of Stevenson's hives, he prefers to keep it under wraps. "Even though it got legalized, people tend to freak out about bees a bit, so it's better just to keep things quiet," Stevenson said.

So far no one has complained about the hives, Stevenson said. Only one neighbor seems to have noticed them, and she ended up buying some honey from Stevenson.

Stevenson, who lives at West 111th Street and Broadway, visits the hives about once a week. On Sunday, he and his 13-year-old son, Leo, checked the hives for mites — a pest that's harmful to bees — and rigged up one hive with a scale so they could weigh it.

Leo doused the hives with smoke, which calms the bees, while Stevenson pulled the top off of a hive and pried loose the wooden frames crawling with bees. He held one up and showed it off to visitors, offering a taste of honey from one corner of the frame.

The bees ignored the fact that the roof of their house was suddenly ripped off and went about their bee business.

After the bees bring nectar back to the hive, they deposit it in the cells of the honeycomb, then beat their wings to make the liquid in the nectar evaporate. As the liquid dries up, the nectar turns into thick golden honey.

Stevenson's hives produced roughly 25 pounds of honey this season, a relatively light load. He's anticipating more next year, and he hopes to sell some at local restaurants.

Stevenson and his son didn't wear any protective gear such as veils or gloves as they worked with the bees. Stevenson said people have asked him, "Why aren't they stinging you to death?" But he's only been stung about nine times — and all were instances when he did something to provoke the bees, such as accidentally crushing them.

Stevenson said beekeeping has given him a new appreciation for the rhythms of the seasons.

"I see the trees flowering and I see it from the bees' perspective," Stevenson said. "I think, 'they're going to eat that.'"