Trace New York City’s iconic food to its most basic ingredients and you’ll find a blossoming plant in a field. You’ll likely also spot a tiny, fuzzy bee booty sticking up among the petals.
Without billions of those fluffy posteriors of the family Apidae ferrying pollen from one blossom to another, farms in New York state and beyond would have paltry harvests.
That’s what drove some 500 people to petition state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a member of the upper chamber’s agricultural committee, for a law to protect wild bees. At first, Biaggi was a little puzzled why this was a task for the state legislature. But soon, the connection between food production and a rapid loss of ecology’s main pollinators became clear.
“In the past year or two, the bee population in New York has decreased by 40 percent,” Biaggi said. “The reason why that’s important is because honeybees pollinate roughly $300 million worth of New York’s crops every year. If 40 percent of our bees are eliminated, that can affect our entire agricultural system.”
So Biaggi introduced a bill requiring anyone — including exterminators or licensed pesticide users — to inform the state’s agriculture department 24 hours before destroying a colony. That would give officials ample time to try finding a new home for the bee colony, rather than seeing them all die.
It may not seem so on the mean streets of the Bronx, but statewide, New York is an agricultural powerhouse. The income of many farmers relies on high yields made possible only through honeybee pollination.
“Many people wrongly believe that, without honeybees, we won’t have any food,” said Andrew Coté, an urban beekeeper, author and bee activist. “We will have food, but we will have a lot less of it. It will be much more expensive, much more difficult to get, and the variety will be unimpressive.”
While having a few thousand more bee colonies in the state might not make a significant impact in the larger scheme of things, feral bees tend to be hardier and more disease-resistant, Coté said. That’s important for a dwindling population of insects in high demand.
“I think it’s really wonderful that any legislator has bees on their radar, because they’re really the canary in the coal mine for many of our environmental problems,” he said.
Biaggi cites statistics showing New York’s “backyard” beekeepers — with 50 or fewer colonies — and “sideline” beekeepers of between 50 and 500 colonies saw winter losses of up to 46 percent since 2017. Those numbers are according to a national management survey by the Bee Informed Partnership — a research and data source for beekeepers nationwide.
Although there isn’t one prevailing reason for the recent downturn in population, Coté said the two main culprits are habitat loss and irresponsible pesticide use.
“We need honeybees to pollinate crops, from almonds all the way to zucchinis,” he said, “because without them, we’re not going to get the yield that we need to feed the 320 million people that we have in this country.”
It may come as a surprise that under current state law, it’s perfectly legal to kill a bee colony for any reason. The public has been encouraged not to molest colonies that take up residence in old trees or buildings. Most exterminators have the names and numbers of local beekeepers in their phone for the times when a wild colony needs a new pad.
The proposed bill would formalize that process. Should it pass, everyone would be required to contact the state and give them a day to find the bees a new home. If none is found, extermination can continue.
The idea is great, but there are a few issues, said Daniel Winter, chair of Empire State Honey Producers.
“Without proper beekeeper registration in New York state, how would state officials know who to contact?” he asked.
In the warmer months when new bee colonies follow their queen to a new location suitable to live in, the state could find itself coordinating a lot of bee housing, Winter said. A beekeeper database would help state officials re-home the bees, and such a database should be in place before legislation like Biaggi’s is passed, he added.
But there might be just such a thing in the works. Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, a Democrat from the Binghamton suburb Endwell, introduced a bill last year creating a registry, though it never saw a vote. Biaggi hopes that bill can be revived and paired with hers in the upcoming legislative session.
“I don’t say yes to everything, but when this came across my desk it caught my attention because of how easy it is to brush over,” Biaggi said. “It’d be easy to say, ‘Well, they’re just bugs. What does it matter?’
“But they very much do matter, and if we eliminated all of them, we would be in trouble — agriculturally and economically.”