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A Day in the Life of the NYPD's Bee Expert

REGO PARK — When thousands of bees swarmed a tree branch on 154th Street near Melrose Avenue in The Bronx last month, NYPD bee expert Anthony Planakis moved in.

He backed his truck up to the tree, climbed onto it and calmly held the bee-covered branch while another police officer cut it off. Planakis then gently placed the swarm into a cardboard box.

He didn't get stung once.

Planakis, 50, is the man the NYPD calls when there is a swarm anywhere in the city.

"[Bees are] the only insect in the world that produce food for us," Planakis said. "To actually work with them and understand them is the most beautiful experience I could ever encounter."

Planakis has been beekeeping since the late 1970s, when his father started taking him from their Queens home to the hives he kept in Connecticut.

"I would sit there and just watch him, watch what he was doing, because I knew nothing about it," he said about his dad, who was born in Greece and passed away in 2007.

"Being European-born you would think the father and the son would be really close, but it was the exact opposite with us. But I still loved him to death."

The bee expert, who has been with the force 18 years and also works repairing heating and air-conditioning units for the department, got his first call in 1995 when a group of bees swarmed a spruce tree in The Bronx.

Planakis found the large queen bee within two pounds of insects, put her in a "swarm box" and waited until her thousands of worker bees followed her.

The swarms occur when hives become overcrowded, forcing the queen to leave with her workers in tow. 

Recently Planakis was called to a swarm of bees covering a fire hydrant at the South Street Seaport.

"I get over there and I see the whole area was cordoned off," he said about the May 26 swarm. "It's not until I came through the clearing of the restaurant that I saw the fire hydrant in front. That's when I thought, 'Oh my God, this is a big one.'"

Planakis said the swarm weighed between 5 and 6 pounds, or up to 18,000 bees, which he had to to quickly vacuum into a container.

"I had to rush out to the car, turn the air conditioner on and lock the doors, because there's so many bees in there and they're generating so much heat you don't want to cook them."

This season he has been particularly busy. He's responded to 31 swarms so far this spring.

"There was so much pollen and nectar available towards the end of March that the spring build-up was so early and so fast," he said.

Planakis added that the swarm season could last well into the summer.

"This year we are going to go into July, it looks like, because the beekeepers' hives haven't even swarmed yet," he said.

"These have been feral hives that I've been picking up, feral swarms." 

He explained that since it is now legal to keep bees in the city, there are a lot more amateur beekeepers tending to hives, adding to the number of wild hives already swarming.

Once he captures the swarm, Planakis takes the bees to one of the 14 hives he has at his Connecticut and Rego Park homes. The four hives in his backyard in Queens average about 60,000 bees each at their peak.

Responding to swarms and keeping hives has its obvious dangers.

"Since I started beekeeping, since 1977 to today, I can document 25 stings,"  he said. 

At this point he said he can sense right away if the bees are getting agitated.

"I listen to them," he said. "I see if they're stressed out."

Despite the dangers, there are also some great benefits to the job.

"Honey lasts forever," said Planakis, who gives the sweet stuff produced by his bees away for free to neighbors.

Some of it was extracted all the way back in 1985.

"It's a pure buckwheat honey and the thing that makes it so priceless — it's pre-GMO (genetically modified organism)," he said. "You had pure plants. Real plants. Heirloom plants that were producing the nectar."

Planakis added he still has some honey his father extracted in the mid 1980s.

"I have seven gallons left. I use it ever so gently," he said. "Special occasions, you might say."

More than honey, Planakis hopes people appreciate the role bees play in the natural process, especially with the increasing popularity of urban gardening.

He added that growing tasty vegetables would not be possible without his little friends.

"You can thank the bees for that."