Everybody should know the foundations of a good education — reading, writing, arithmetic and bees.
At least that’s the case at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center.
Back in May, the Kingsbridge Terrace center welcomed about 10,000 new buzz-worthy staff members, garden and volunteer coordinator Jason Bonet said. The center welcomed a community of honeybees in a sweet pad on their roof.
The idea for a beehive began last year. KHCC’s community garden program produces fruits, vegetables and herbs it donates to a food access program. But it’s also a teaching tool for students to learn about where their food comes from through weekly nutrition classes and regular chef battles.
Last summer, Sean Flynn — a KHCC parent crazy about bees — approached Bonet about donating a hive.
“When I initially brought the plan up, our executive director thought this was amazing and the staff was very interested,” Bonet said. “But it had to be something that the parent council was in favor of.”
KHCC’s parent council is involved with almost every aspect of the center’s operations, and they needed to be on board with a mess of bees living so close to kids before such a program was approved, Bonet said. If they told him to buzz off, the project wouldn’t happen.
So he began preparing an impressive bee presentation to win them over.
“Simply saying, ‘Let’s get some bees,’ wasn’t going to cut it,” Bonet said.
So he made a three-pronged argument. First, having a hive nearby would boost the garden’s productivity. Pollination is essential for plant propagation. Whether the produce grown in the center’s garden gets prepared in the center’s kitchen for lunch or donated to people in the community, those fruits and vegetables are made possible through a bee’s hard work.
“If you want your kids to be eating more organic, more locally grown food — good food for free — we want bees to improve the productivity of our crops so we get more tomatoes, more cucumbers, more peppers, more ground cherries,” Bonet said.
Bees make two useful byproducts — honey and beeswax. One goes over yogurt and the other is an ingredient in beauty products. Learning how the humble bee manufactures two ubiquitous products, Bonet said, is a great lesson.
And finally, bee populations fall each year due to habitat destruction and widespread use of insecticide. Without their annual diligent pollination, many of the fruits and vegetables available in grocery stores year-round would disappear. It’s a bee’s mission to keep their hive thriving, not to sting anything that moves.
“The presentation went over pretty well,” Bonet said. “And now we have a beehive.”
On a cloudy afternoon hinting at rain, Flynn was up on the KHCC roof, decked out in a beekeeper’s signature veil and protective gear. He carefully lifted the lid off the hive revealing a veritable convention of bees. Thousands of striped thoraxes worked over the honeycomb frames, each busily heading to a bee equivalent of a business meeting.
A “beesness” meeting, if you will.
Bees flew lazily around Flynn — calm, but curious about the giant disassembling their office building. Using a specialized tool, Flynn broke a frame free from the resinous propolis bees use to water- and wind-proof their hives. He lifted a rectangular frame of wax cells filled with golden, dripping honey.
“You’d be surprised how heavy these can be,” Flynn said. And he was right. One small frame had surprising heft. A full hive can easily weigh 200 pounds.
After a little research into beekeeping a few years ago, Flynn became obsessed. Instead of trading the Bronx for the country, he set up a beehive in his apartment. He keeps the window open year-round, and the worker bees fly in and out collecting nectar. They’re quiet, clean and bring home food — ideal traits for roommates.
“My daughter thinks I’m crazy,” Flynn said. “Maybe I am.”
He’s a bit of a bee ambassador. Flynn teaches classes and workshops about urban beekeeping, and about the ecological importance of bees to food production and plant propagation, in rural areas and here in the Bronx.
“A lot of people don’t realize that about a quarter of the land in the Bronx is park land,” he said. “We produce a good amount of honey each year from what the bees collect.”
Bees roam miles to gather nectar. The rooftop hive probably contains samples from Van Cortlandt and Henry Hudson parks, the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Gardens, and any backyard wildflower in between.
A beehive at KHCC is ideal, because surprisingly, the children the center serves are the perfect age to introduce to bees.
“Somewhere between kindergarten and high school, kids learn to be afraid of bees,” Flynn said. “We have little kids who approach the bees very respectfully but aren’t afraid of them. You get some of the older kids, and they’re swatting and running from anything that flies.”
Adults, too, harbor a bit of bee prejudice. He and Bonet had to educate parents about the bee behavior. All bees have a job. Some make babies. Some regulate the hive temperature. Some keep their home free of detritus. Some patrol the area for attackers.
And some go out to earn the bee’s bread and honey butter.
“When you see a bee flying out like that, that’s their last job,” Flynn said. “That’s maybe six to 10 days of foraging. So when you see a bee out here, they’ve maybe got another week left of life.”
Bees have a lot of stuff to get done, and only six weeks to do it. Stinging people — which is fatal to them — is not on the list, so we shouldn’t flatter ourselves by thinking bees have time to care about our empty, nectar-free lives.
The hive on the roof is inaccessible to the students, but the daily bee business is visible from the infant’s nursery window. Kids beg to come watch the comings and goings of the bees, Flynn said. In a few weeks, it’ll be time to harvest the honey, and although the KHCC children won’t work with the bees directly, they will get a front row seat to watch honey get extracted from the comb.
It may seem like such a little thing, Bonet said, but the beehive gives the kids a window into a part of nature that’s often inaccessible when growing up in the big city.
“I think, as a Puerto Rican living in the Bronx and living in New York City for most of his life, I hadn’t understood any of the process of how honey was created,” he said. “I didn’t see a honeycomb. I just saw it on TV And this way, I hoped to bring that experience to them.”