Atop a Manhattan Convention Center - A Harvest of Honey


From left, Tamara Read, an engineer at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan, Rick Brown, chief engineer at the Javits, and Liane Newton, the director of nycbeekeeping.org, inspected a harvest of honey from bees raised on the convention center’s roof. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times.

Link to story - New York Times

Let us begin not with the who, which was several thousand bees and a bunch of people in anti-sting gear that looked like spacesuits, or the what, which was harvesting honey. Let us go directly to the where.

It was not a bosky setting that would bring to mind the Robert Frost poem about good fences and good neighbors, but the south roof of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s Far West Side. Here the neighbors are the unfinished towers of the Hudson Yards development. They ring what has become an urban meadow — the south roof, mostly covered by 6.75 acres of kaleidoscopic sedum. It is yellowish green. It will turn red in time for Christmas.

The bees have been in residence since spring. The first 12,000 came from California, transplanted in a three-pound container that looked like a shoe box with screens on both sides. They were placed in wooden hives, which look like stackable drawers. There were 60,000 to 80,000 by midsummer.

The accommodations are typical of urban apiaries. Liane Newton, the director of nycbeekeeping.org, who tends them, described her role as “convincing them they live in a tree trunk when they live in a file cabinet.”

Her persuasion seems to have paid off. “They made cells for closets, cells for babies, cells for storing pollen,” she reported one morning last week. “One amazing thing about bees is they have this architectural inclination.”

Tending hives at the Javits Center would have been impossible a few years ago. Beekeeping was illegal in New York City until 2010, when the Board of Health lifted a Giuliani-era ban. The Javits Center’s green roof was installed a few years later as part of a $463 million project that was part face-lift, part green-roof sustainability project.

The face-lift got rid of the building’s original dark glass facade, which birds often crashed into. And Ms. Newton, the subject of an award-winning documentary called “The Beekeeper’s Keeper,” insisted that “the green roof is so much more important than what I’m doing.”

The sedum captures rainwater and keeps the Javits Center a few degrees cooler than before it was installed. “The bees are a grace note, but the grace notes can only exist because the green roof exists,” Ms. Newton said.

And the grace notes are watched. A live video feed from the roof displayed on a video wall by the Javits Center’s administrative offices. Ms. Newton had one eye on it when a crow touched down near the hive closest to the camera.


“That crow is going to try to grab a bee for lunch,” she said.

A few steps away was Rick Brown, the Javits Center’s chief engineer, who shook his head. “It’s going for the dead ones,” he said.

Ms. Newton watched for a moment, nodded and explained what was apparently happening: “One of their many jobs is to be undertaker bees and clean the dead ones out.” The bees had carried the carcasses from the hives and left them on ground, an easy treat for passers-by like the crow, she said.

Soon she and Mr. Brown were leading the way upstairs, where she handed out the bee suits. They are white like spacesuits. But they do not come with what NASA calls a “primary life support system,” an oxygen supply. There is no need. The zip-around hood has netting on the front, not a clear plastic bubble. In a bee suit you breathe normally, but anxiously, even though Ms. Newton said the bees were “lovable and mild-mannered.”

Besides, she said, “Bees only sting in self-defense.” And only female bees, who are the workers and the queens, can sting. Male bees cannot.

Mr. Brown and Tamara Read, who described herself as a Javits Center engineer and beekeeping apprentice, lit a small barbecue smoker. Ms. Newton said the smell would calm the bees, which secrete a chemical she called a “fear pheromone.”