A Q&A with renowned beekeeper, John Howe, who will contribute “Dispatch from Devon,” a series on his experiences in Devon, UK, where they are working on getting town council approval to keep bees on the historic Totnes castle meadow.
Q: John, while you lived in NYC, you were one of the few people to secretly keep bees during the time beekeeping was illegal in the Big Apple. What inspired you to do this?
A: My first encounter with honeybees was as a child growing up in the suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut. Playing in the sprinkler in the summer, from time to time I would step on a dandelion where a bee was gathering nectar, crushing her and – of course – get stung in self-defense. I didn’t much like it.
As a young man, I got a job as nature counselor at a camp in the Catskills, where one day a group of kids and I hiked down the road to a local bee farm. It was a seminal event. For the first time I saw the whole thing: bees, hives, and the honey house where the honey is extracted from the comb. There we each got a turn to crank the handle of the extraction machine. All that golden honey spinning out! We also tasted a delicious sample. The whole experience is stamped indelibly in my mind.
When I moved to New York City I visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where they had an observation hive in one of the greenhouses. It’s long gone now, but I would stare with fascination at all those busy workers. It made me fantasize about moving to the country and becoming a beekeeper myself.
One warm fall day many years later, as I was sitting at a café across from Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a honeybee landed on my table. I watched in rapt attention and even tried to feed it a bit of table sugar. In a sudden epiphany, I thought – if honeybees could thrive in an urban environment like NYC, I could keep bees right here and now, not in some distant fantasy.
I went straight home and started Googling. In no time at all, I had joined the most local club I could find— the Long Island Beekeepers Club. Later I founded NYCBeekeeping.org, Inc. which has become the largest beekeeping group on the East Coast to my knowledge. I supplied myself with how-to books and located web sites where I could buy everything I needed to build three beehives on the rooftop of the brownstone my wife and I own in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene.
Once the beehives were up, I ordered a package of bees, which arrived by truck from Georgia the following April. I dumped them unceremoniously into the hives and they thrived. I had a honey crop the first year. (I later discovered that I was, in fact, one of the first of what is now a huge cadre of Brooklyn beekeepers.)
I had been a school teacher most of my professional life, and so I wanted to share my beekeeping with children. I bought a see-through observation hive like the one at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and stocked it with worker bees, drones and a queen, marked with a colored dot on her back to make her easier for the kids to see.
Mostly through word of mouth, my program has thrived as my bees did, and it is producing its own kind of sweetness: schoolchildren who instead of screaming when they see a bee, come to understand and want to watch it instead.
I have now moved to England, but return to my Brooklyn house each Spring to do the program.
I’m just getting started beekeeping and teaching here.