Q&A with authors Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: Part 1

Did you know… September is National Honey Month? We didn’t either. So it’s particularly fitting that our book, Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut is coming out this month. What a beautiful coincidence! 

Today we have the first half of a Q&A with Moore and Kosut, in which the two authors discuss the origins of their book, look at urban beekeeping practices in New York City, and give a convincing case for why we all should care about the fate of bees. Stay tuned for part two later this month!

Question: What got you interested in studying urban beekeeping?

Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut: We got interested in studying urban beekeeping because it seems as if the bee is the animal of the moment. Lisa Jean said, doesn’t it seem like bees are popping up everywhere? In farmer’s markets, at city fairs, people are taking beekeeping classes, and essentially it was a question of the fascination with bees in New York City.

We were also interested in the DIY movement that is very popular in many urban centers in the United States and in particular Brooklyn, where we live. The ways in which the DIY movement cleaves with urban homesteading. Urban homesteading is where people take some of the country into the city and do things like bake bread, make beer, knit, and raise chickens. Or have fermentation parties – there is connection between fermentation parties and bees – making mead. (And apparently bees are also the gateway drug to chickens.)

As professors, we were also interested in the trends regarding what students do the years after college. It used to be that students would take the year off and go get a Eurail pass and travel around Europe.  But we find now that our students are traveling around to different urban farms, or even rural farms, and doing organic farming – or Woofing – where you stay on organic farms and work in exchange for your room and board. We were fascinated by this need for the return to the land and how it has been modified from the 1970s to be in urban spaces.

Like the green-roof – the Eagle Street Rooftop Farms in Greenpoint, Brooklyn where they have an extensive rooftop farm with all sorts of vegetables, bunnies, chickens and bees. One of the many places in the city that is bringing nature into the urban as part of greening initiatives. Dropping out while staying in. Having all the luxuries of urban life while at the same time having this alternative identity and practice it.  Bees are part of that practice.

We were also interested in people making things, people getting involved. So in Buzz we talk about how there are these generations of old and young beekeepers who really enjoy both the interaction with the bee but also the collaboration with the bee to do things like make honey and harvest it, making beeswax and beeswax candles. And also in a sense of making something larger – what we would call the pollination of NYC which creates vast opportunities for the flora and fauna of NYC – the urban ecology.

Q: Isn’t Beekeeping in NYC illegal?

LJM and MK: Until recently, a couple of years ago, keeping bees in NYC was illegal. Under Rudy Giuliani, in 1999 beekeeping became illegal. It was a nuisance crime. The local authorities didn’t really go after people that kept bees unless some neighbor turned them in because they felt fearful of bees being in their space.  Fearful that bees would attack or swarm. This is a common misperception about swarming – it is not dangerous. It is just bees moving to find more space because they are such a healthy colony and want to grow. It is a spectacular thing to see a swarm – our informants talk about seeing a swarm live as a lightning strike or a shooting star. Where nature overcomes you.

Q: Has beekeeping been growing in popularity?

LJM and MK: Yes, definitely. When we started taking urban beekeeping classes at the Central Park Arsenal (which is a free six-month course run by New York City Beekeeping), there were probably about 200 – 300 in the room—and by the time we left, there were about 2,000 members… and it keeps growing. Once a week, we pick up the paper and there is a story about beekeeping in there – it is expanding as a hobby.

Part of that is because last year was a terrible year for the bees. In 2012, fifty percent of the bee population was lost. So colony collapse disorder (CCD) is not going away or being solved. It is difficult to keep up on the CCD crisis and how people are trying to fix it – while at the same time more and more people are cultivating bees. More classes are being offered – they are an urban animal now.

Q: Why should people care about bees?

LJM and MK: People should care about bees primarily because they are a native pollinator – not native to the United States, but brought here in the 17th Century. But they are a pollinator that can be domesticated through animal husbandry practices and trained to pollinate certain crops. Pollination is responsible for at least one third of food production and reproduction – both industrial and backyard food production.

And since 2006 bees have been suffering from colony collapse disorder, which we talk about extensively in Buzz. It seems to us that since they have been gone from the disorder, people care about them more. This shows how enmeshed with are with bees as this other species and how we co-mingle in all of these ways that are becoming more obvious to us now.

In Buzz we examine CCD through media studies. Different agencies, scientists, look at it from different angles. Some people write about it as being caused by pesticides, or mono-cropping, or the decimation of local ecologies; other people liken CCD to invader species being brought by urbanization and the movement of mites from different locations to attack bees. Ultimately CCD is caused by a host of factors which are human interventions into the landscape. It is highly politicized – if it is linked to pesticides. There are billions of dollars at stake.

Part two of this Q&A will appear on this blog on September 20th, 2013. 

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