Until early 2010, beekeeping was illegal in New York City. The city’s health department maintained that bees caused both a public nuisance and a potential health crisis. When stung, about 2 percent of people have a life-threatening reaction to bee venom, which would require immediate medical assistance and in a worst case scenario, could result in death. Despite the illegality of beekeeping, hives were hidden amongst community gardens and on the roof tops of apartment buildings for years. Penalties for maintaining these secret hives could result in fines of thousands of dollars. While it’s of course important to protect vulnerable citizens from potentially lethal insects, much was lost when beekeeping was banned.
Beekeeping was made illegal due to a combination of both legitimate and illegitimate fears. Safety concerns were legitimate but probably exaggerated. At one point, health officials considered honeybees to be just as dangerous as hyenas and poisonous snakes. “The real danger,” according to Andrew Cote of the New York City Beekeepers Association, “is the skewed public perception of the danger of honeybees. People fear that if there’s a beehive on their rooftop, they’ll be stung. Honeybees are interested in water, pollen and nectar.”
Since beekeeping was made legal, perhaps as many as one thousand people have been trained and licensed by beekeeping associations. As a result, New Yorkers are making money selling honey and in some instances, even creating a business around what might have once been an illegal hobby. Honey is unique in that it tastes different depending on its environment. As a result, dozens of different honey flavors can emerge from just downtown Manhattan alone. The potential to make and sell a vast array of honey is putting money in people’s pockets, creating both part-time and full-time jobs, and contributing to the culture and food of the city.
The misunderstanding of bees and the risks associated with beekeeping resulted in several consequences: the restriction of an everyday freedom to partake in a hobby and enjoy life, the loss of part-time and full-time jobs, and the loss of a local honey industry. The cumulative effect of making beekeeping illegal is not necessarily devastating to a city, but it is certainly hurtful. Today, beekeeping is legal and beekeepers “must register with the health department and maintain the hives so that the bees are not a nuisance.” In other words, the practice was legalized, regulated, and restricted.
What can we learn from this? Perhaps that it’s wrong for our government to so often ban and criminalize things they don’t fully understand. Perhaps that making an activity illegal does not make it disappear. Perhaps that it’s better to regulate and control an industry that may, in some instances, have dangerous consequences, rather than hand over complete control to criminals. Perhaps that it’s wrong to treat average citizens as if they’re a threat to society for engaging in a relatively harmless activity.
One might think there’s a lesson to be learned here but something tells me the insane impulse to criminalize and imprison will continue.