A first-time visitor to Green-Wood Cemetery, the National Historic Landmark located just south of Prospect Park that was founded in 1838, will immediately notice how serene the space is. These days, you can stand in a lush, secluded spot near the 39th Street border and hear woodpeckers, mockingbirds, and parrots chattering away, with only the occasional trains from the nearby subway station and airplanes flying low overhead to remind you that you’re still in the city. And then, if you listen carefully, you may notice a slight buzzing underneath it all.
Because there, amid Civil War soldier gravestones and much more recent monuments, stand six new beehives. As of April, Green-Wood is in the beekeeping business.
“We have 560,000 residents, and we’re constantly talking about our history,” says Chelsea Dowell, manager of programs and membership at Green-Wood. “But we talk a little less about Green-Wood as a landscape. That’s something we’re turning to, and these bees are an interesting part of it.”
Keeping bees at the 478-acre cemetery, which was recently accredited as an arboretum, was an idea that had been kicking around the Historic Fund office, Dowell says, when Nicole Francis, an active member who has kept bees in her Brooklyn backyard, approached them, enthusiastic about helping them get it going. They were inspired, but had no idea how to move forward.
“She told us about the process,” Dowell says. “But where do you find a beekeeper?”
In New York City, where the ban on beekeeping was lifted in 2010 — and where now, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there are 102 registered beekeepers with 265 hives — apparently you just wait for one to show up.
Davin Larson, a coordinator of social media at a Manhattan-based non-profit who grew up in Kansas with a father who keeps bees, had been to Green-Wood once or twice before, riding his bike from his apartment in Williamsburg to explore the enormous space he’d seen on the subway map and wondered about. Then this past winter, while attending at a classical concert in the chapel, he got something of a bee in his bonnet.
“I was sitting there listening to the music, just thinking to myself how this is the perfect place in New York City to keep bees,” Larson says. And, with a couple years’ experience working with hives on a friend’s roof in Fort Greene and apprenticing at a program at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, immediately after the concert he approached Dowell about the idea, and it turned out to be the perfect match.
Deciding on a home for the hives was the next challenge. They wanted them to be away from the main gate in a more secluded and open spot, to give the bees (and visitors) a little space, and having them near a water source was a bonus. The hives almost blend in with their surroundings — rather than the more usual cinderblocks, these are propped up on excess, uncarved headstones the cemetery had in its workshop, and as you approach from a distance, the white, evenly placed hives almost appear to be grave markers.
Of course, as an active cemetery with relatives paying respects alongside various others — from birdwatchers to tourists and more — there’s a balancing act in beekeeping, as there is in their events programming.
“Some of these graves are quite actively visited, and we’ve had families come by. I’m always secretly worried that they won’t be cool with it, but they’ve all been like, ‘That’s awesome!’ They’ve all been really into it,” Larson says, waving in his hooded, mesh protective jacket at some curious onlookers passing by the hives. Sometimes, however, it’s him approaching visitors, like one weekend when groups of painters had easels set up around the water’s edge. “I felt bad because I had to go up to one of them and say, ‘Hey we’re going to work with the bees, you may want to back up a little bit.’ Because he was very close. I hate to interrupt but…”
Concerns about beestings may be high on some visitors’ lists, but Larson reminds them that the bees usually won’t bother you unless you bother them. And he says the Green-Wood bees in particular are some of the friendliest he’s worked with, a subset of the western honey bee known as the Carniolan, which have been bred to be very docile.
“Working with these bees has kind of been a revelation,” he says, explaining how his Fort Greene bees have been so aggressive in the past that he’d get stung every couple weeks, while just doing regular work with them.
Indeed, when we visit the cemetery, the bees seem as mellow as their beekeeper, allowing us to spend ample time very close to their hives and to taste small bits of honey they’ve already been producing, which is mildly floral. So far, the only incident involved Larson’s girlfriend.
“She was here last weekend, and she got stung for the very first time because she accidentally stepped on one,” he says.
Getting to the end of this first season successfully will require periodic visits to ensure the bees have enough space to grow (“If they run out of space, there’s a chance they’ll swarm,” Larson notes), and that issues like mites and mold don’t create trouble. Thankfully, until the difficulties of winter at least, for New York City bees those are the bulk of the concerns.
“People in other parts of the country have to genuinely worry about bears,” Larson says. “Still, they have a pretty bad raccoon problem here. But I hope they’d know better than to mess with bees.”
There’s also a chance, for a variety of reasons, that he could lose a queen. One summer at his Fort Greene hives, he thought that had happened — he checked repeatedly and carefully, but she was nowhere to be found. He quickly ordered a replacement, as many do, via post.
“The mail people, they know they’re legally required to transport the bees, but they’re not happy about it,” he says, noting that he had the queen delivered to his office (and that day, of course, he found the hive’s original queen, doing just fine). “You could hear it buzzing inside the express mail envelope. My coworkers joked about a new HR policy being needed.”
So far, the Green-Wood bees appear to be doing well. Brought here in multiple three-pound packages — 120,000 bees in total, to start — from an apiary in Pennsylvania, they’ve adjusted nicely to their new home.
“It’s been really interesting watching them grow,” Larson says, showing how the hives on the ends of the row are more active and productive than the ones in the middle. “You start them with the exact same conditions, and then they just do completely differently.”
Whether they harvest any honey this fall will be a judgement call. The bees need enough to survive the winter, but then any excess Larson feels they can live without can be harvested.
“I’d say we’re going to get a lot of honey this year,” Larson predicts. “But I don’t want to jinx it.”
Surplus honey isn’t always expected after the first year, but once they get going, they could potentially yield around 200 pounds per (very productive) hive. And with work on a new visitors center at the former Weir Greenhouse on 5th Avenue currently underway, this Brooklyn-born sweetener could end up being a unique — if not lucrative — souvenir at the cemetery, where they’re constantly working on ways to create a buzz for visitors, as space for their original business of burials rapidly runs out.
“Luckily we get a lot of support to try new things and get creative, which is why we’re doing all this fun stuff,” Green-Wood’s Dowell says. “The leadership is invested in the future of the cemetery, and that means taking some innovative chances.”
With that in mind, Green-Wood is at work on a name for its honey. They’re still deciding, but one they’ve been kicking around may indeed stick: The Sweet Hereafter.