The bees of NYC

—Mary Kosut and Lisa Jean Moore

New York City is a multispecies metropolis – a place where millions of humans, animals and plants co-mingle and co-exist. Although pigeons and rats are the most iconic of urban animals, New York is home to over 230 species of bees that play a vital role in the local urban ecology. Since their migration from Europe in colonial times, honeybees have always lived throughout the five boroughs with or without the aid of humans, but our insect neighbors have never really been on our radar until now.

In the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) the syndrome responsible for the disappearance of 50% of the bee population in 2012, we are beginning to understand our vital connection to bees. Bees are a species we rely on; their pollination makes our contemporary diets possible, and their honey, venom and pollen are revered for holistic nutrition and alternative health treatments. They are literally a part of our bodies, and we tend to describe their behaviors in anthropocentric terms – insects that become too much like us.

Honeybees are a green mascot and a cause celebre, melding well with urban farming and green architectural initiatives. As a recent article in the New York Times reported, beehives are being cultivated on rooftops in the city’s most prestigious locales, including Bryant Park, Chelsea and the Whitney Museum of Art on the Upper East Side. Even though some people are fearful or skeptical of living near a colony, many would likely agree that these industrious insects should be protected and even welcomed to rooftops, backyards, parks and farms. The honeybee has a new cultural status – it is officially an urban animal.

In the process of conducting a three-year multispecies ethnography in New York City amidst bees and their human caretakers, we were witness to tens of thousands of bees who challenged our senses and caught our attention. They buzzed, swirled, dive-bombed and stung. Like the beekeepers we interviewed who worked closely with their hives, we were often captivated while in their space. Being in the presence of bees challenged our taken for granted assumptions about the ways in which we consider nonhuman animals, and how it is so easy to slip into descriptions that perpetuate distinctions between nature and culture.  Best intentions notwithstanding, as humans we tend to think that we can save or fix ecological problems (that we created) through technology and other interventions. This is a perfect case of human exceptionalism.

Even though it takes a great deal of human effort to establish a hive and cultivate healthy bees, we must recognize that bees are also working alongside us to create commonly shared worlds. The generative capacity of bees – they pollinate New York City – must not be eclipsed by human-centric discussions of what we as a species are making possible for them.

Mary Kosut and Lisa Jean Moore are authors of Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (NYU Press, 2013). Kosut is a cultural sociologist and Associate Professor of Media, Society, and the Arts and Gender Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York. Moore is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies and Coordinator of Gender Studies at Purchase College, State University of New York.

5 Comments on The bees of NYC

  1. Many things are stated about bees but the most important in my opinion is without them life would quickly come to a sudden stop. Think about it for a moment…No more fruits, vegetables, plants never mind the honey. We need them probably much more than we need them I think…Great to see more people in large cities interested in bee keeping.

  2. I am looking forward to your robust discussion on the plight of the honey bee. I like to think of you both as pollinators of ideas and research keeping conscious the ongoing situation of the dearth of bees in our society and bringing the information to new audiences. We need to understand the need for the bee especially with so much of our food being grown and processed by big agribusinesses. There is a long tail trend of inner city gardening but we also need gardening and bee keeping to be put back into the cultural vernacular as something that anyone can do and for any reason whether for economics, pleasure or wanting to help out nature. Going back to self provisional thinking. And with that we will begin to understand what our ancestors used to do – and that could be just a generation ago…
    We must start good rumours of bees- if you see a bee- you’ll get a new job…something like that..or you’ll get married if you see a honey bee and so everyone will start to see bees and think of them as positive energy and auspicious, and then they will start to smile when they come around… maybe we go door to door? NO- you should start the FIRST EVER- STING BREAK MUSICAL CONCERT!!!! TALENT LINEUP:
    Sting
    B-52’s
    B.B. King
    BeeGees
    Honey Music
    Milk & Honey
    Honey Child
    wih HOST: Honey Boo Boo

  3. Wonderful to see urban green focus on bees by social scientists with a post-human centered orientation.

  4. Looking forward to reading their book. I have been a long term beekeeper and have enjoyed watching how city folk have taken up the habit.

  5. Great to see social sciences involved in these issues. Been trying to do a bee project myself and see the relevance. Nice story.

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