There is something inherently insect-like about the New York City commute: swarms of people crammed together into subway cars, piling into elevators, buzzing around the streets. To make the metaphor literal, 20,000 European honeybees joined the commute this morning, blocking the entrance to Vox Media's headquarters in downtown Manhattan.
Passersby stopped to marvel at the scene, phones in hand, snapping pictures. “Oh my gosh!” a woman shrieked. “New York City!” someone else yelled. “Yeah! Save the bees!” shouted a young woman with short, blond hair and colorful tights.
Hovering around the scene was beekeeper Katherine Morris, wearing a white hazmat suit and army green All Stars. She was waiting for another beekeeper to arrive — Andrew Coté, an independent beekeeper who works for Andrew’s Honey and sometimes helps out the city — so that the swarming bees could be scooped up in a bucket and carried to another beehive.
But why were the bees commuting, and why here?
Swarming is common when the temperatures rise, Morris explained. In fact, there have been dozens of swarming incidents already this season in New York City, according to Coté. “This is as natural as a kitten up a tree,” he says.
A bee colony generally hosts about 30,000 to 50,000 bees at one time, but when it gets warm, the queens produce a lot of new bees. This makes the colony huge, Morris says. When the colony is too large, the queen will take a third of it and fly to find another spot, says Morris. Or, if another queen was born in the beehive, she’ll leave with some followers. A beehive, after all, can have only one queen.
The honeybees grappling on the side of the Vox Media building were just waiting. Search parties — hundreds of scouts — had already been sent out to scour the area for a place to build a new hive. The building wasn’t ideal for that; bees like wood.
No one is sure where the bees started their commute, though. There are several beehives in Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan, Morris says, as well as on the rooftops of several downtown buildings. (New York City legalized beekeeping in 2010, and bees are used for making honey or pollinating city gardens.) Today’s swarming bees likely came from one of those hives, but it’s impossible to pin down the exact origin.
Of course, when it comes to bees, there’s the question of the sting, which can be dangerous to people with allergies. These bees, however, were unlikely to sting — likely only if they were poked or prodded. “They don’t want to leave the queen because they’re the workers,” Morris says. “They’re there to protect her.” Besides, they had no hive to protect, a usual source of human-bee conflict.
A little after noon, Coté arrived in a white pickup truck. “Where is it?” he asked Morris as he stepped beyond the yellow tape. He turned, saw the swarm, and smiled. He was wearing a beige “I [bee] NY” jacket, which included a net to protect his face from stings. Then Coté, Morris, and a few other beekeepers got to work.
The first plan was to vacuum up the bees into a bucket, but the vacuum’s power cord didn’t work. So Coté gathered several cardboard boxes and brushed the bees off the wall using a thin, long brush with yellow bristles. As some of the bees were scooped into the box, hundreds of bees pushed off from the wall, forming a big cloud. Over the city noise, it was possible to hear a light buzzing. After the bees calmed down a bit, they were scooped again from the cardboard box into a larger wooden box filled with beehive frames. The whole thing was then placed inside a larger cardboard box of Bella dinner napkins and taped, so that the bees couldn’t get out.
“That’s not closed! Look at it!” Coté shouted as the other beekeepers used duct tape to close up the box. “It’s not closed!” The duct taping continued.
Coté says he isn’t sure where the honeybees will be transported. He will likely add them to existing beehives, especially ones that are struggling because they don’t have enough bees. After over an hour, the vacuum was finally put to work, and about a thousand bees were sucked up.
The box was finally loaded onto Coté’s pickup truck. Dozens of bees were still scattered around the street — without the rest of the colony, they will get lost and die, Coté says. But so it goes.
Once the insects were safely removed, the people on the streets swarmed forth again, buzzing in and out of their offices. The cloud of bees was gone, and so was the crowd of humans.
Additional reporting by Angela Chen