Honeybee future in young hands

A few weeks after her birth, the queen honeybee embarks on her mating flight, where she mates with between 12 and 15 male “drone bees,” consecutively, mid flight, 40 feet above ground.

Hillary Horowitz, apiculturist, explained this fact among many other aspects of bee culture at a honeybee basics class on June 24, at City Growers’ flagship one-acre rooftop farm in Long Island City. Before the class started, she warned us that she usually teaches children and that in fact this will be her very first time teaching adults, so she would have to learn to talk to people who stood still and (actually) paid attention.

But, whatever the age of her listeners, her advice often remained the same.“You need to stand still if a bee buzzes near you, it just thinks you smell like flowers,” she cautioned us. “It will soon realize that you are not as tasty and will fly away.”  

“Honeybee reproduction is very similar to bar culture,” Horowitz joked. The swarm of drone bees spend their short lifetime waiting to mate with a queen bee. It is their only purpose.

She could talk about honeybee mating for hours. In the three years since she became a licensed beekeeper, Horowitz has been teaching children about the importance of bees in today’s agricultural world through City Growers’ after-school programs, hands-on workshops, and summer camps.

This evening class was the first in a series of programs aimed at adults. The $35 fee for the class serves as a contribution to City Growers’ summer camp, where children are encouraged to learn more about where the food they eat comes from and why it matters, through various activities, ranging from planting seeds to cooking with the farm produce.

Many of my classmates were kindergarten teachers or staffers for NGOs, some thought about becoming beekeepers, too. However, none of us had ever set foot on a rooftop farm. After taking the elevator up 11 floors, we walked into a different world. From the roof, we could see the tops of the Chrysler Building and the Freedom Tower, both of which paled in comparison to the verdant garden we had just entered.

Row after row of kale, Swiss chard, red shiso, peas, or the most in-demand vegetable, were growing, nourished by rooflight soil (a special soil for rooftop farms) and an underground water tank. Nearby, two hens clucked in their newly improved coop. “That’s the way of the future!” a fellow classmate exclaimed at the sight of the farm.

Following the tour of the acreage, we gathered around a table to listen to Horowitz. She encourages her students to learn more about bees because “knowing is already helping.”

Bees help pollination in part due to their flower fidelity. Whereas other pollinators fly to different flowers throughout the day, honeybees tend to stick with one type of flower. Pollination happens when the pollen a bee has been gathering on its body comes in contact with another flower. “You have bees to thank for the variety in your food,” Horowitz said.

One of the most memorable bee- related facts is still the mating process, and Horowitz was keen on informing the class about the relatively gruesome act.

The drone bee is ripped open and dies after ejaculating inside the queen bee. His endophallus, still inside the queen, is then removed by the next drone bee, and the process repeats itself until the queen’s oviducts are full and she has enough sperm for a few years. She then returns to the hive to lay eggs (up to 2,000 a day) until she runs out of sperm, two to five years later.