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 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,” 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. 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.
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 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 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.
She proved this by letting what she said was a male walk onto the back of her hand. Then she put her hand next to the trying-not-to-tremble hand of a newbie in the group — mine. The bee did not sting, but it did not stay long, either. In seconds, it flew away.
Brown and Tamara Read, who described herself as a Javits Center engineer and beekeeping apprentice, lit a small barbecue smoker. Newton said the smell would calm the bees, which secrete a chemical she called a “fear pheromone.”
“If they’re anxious,” she said, “they used that pheromone to communicate with other bees.”
So much anxiousness. But this is New York, the capital of anxiousness.
Newton opened a hive. The bees must not have released the fear pheromone, because they mostly stayed put. “They’re very mellow,” she announced, beginning what sounded like a physiology lesson: “They’re hairy all over. They’ve got hair on their eyeballs.” Not to get too technical or anything, but bees had nothing to do with the origin of the slang phrase "hairy eyeball," according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Inside the hives, there was honey in the removable wooden frames — darker honey, she said, than a batch harvested last month. She shook the bees off a frame, and after shedding the beekeeping suits, watched Read carry the frame inside to the Javits Center’s huge main kitchen.
The chef, Alex Reyes, was waiting.
He watched as Newton cut some honeycombs and spooned a dollop onto the small glass surface of a refractometer, a device used to gauge the moisture content in the honey. Newton held it up to the light.
“Pretty dry,” she said.
Reyes agreed when she handed the refractometer to him. “Really nice,” he said.
So she began carving the honeycomb into squares using a large knife. The squares looked almost like chocolate. Reyes said they reminded him of toffee. Newton said the honey was twice as sweet as sugar.
John Erickson, the vice president of Centerplate, which has the food and beverage concession at the Javits Center, said he had tried locally harvested honey at the Taste NY market on the Taconic Parkway near Lagrangeville, New York. “But their honey was in a bottle,” he said. “This is like getting the milk from a cow.”
By now Newton was putting other frames in an extraction device, a spinner that would remove the honey the way a salad spinner removes the water from just-washed lettuce. The brand-new extractor broke down. Brown got it going using a battery-operated drill from his workshop, and Reyes made salads with honey in the dressing. Among the other ingredients were mustard, shallots, sea salt, garlic and vinegar. The salads will be sold in the Taste NY Bistro at the Javits Center.
But there was more honey, lots of it, in a white bucket with a spigot. Read filled dozens of one-ounce jars, 135 in all, with labels that did not stint on puns like “taste the buzz” and “a hive of opportunity.” There were several larger jars for Reyes, for more salad dressing.
Newton said it was so much, so soon. “I was thrilled we could have a harvest this first year,” she said. “Most of the time, in the first year, we don’t count on getting any.”