Chase Emmons is an unlikely beekeeper. Born and raised in New York City’s West Village, he grew up with a city kid’s fear of stings, and it wasn’t until adulthood that he discovered his love for apis mellifera. Making up for lost time, Chase went on to become a Managing Partner of Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm, where he and his partners created a 30+ hive apiary spanning three boroughs, in 2012. He is also a founder of NYC Honey Fest, and the on-set bee wrangler for CBS’ Elementary.
When did you become interested in beekeeping and why?
Back in 2002, a close friend was living up in Stowe VT. He was one of the top execs at Burton Snowboards, building the company and their sub brands. One day he called me and said “dude, I got a beehive”. My response was “dude, are you f*cking insane?” He said he wasn’t, that he knew I’d love it, and I had to come up and check it out. So I did. Having just purchased a house with 20 acres in MA, I certainly had the space to do it if I so chose. And choose I did. It was easier than having a cat (bees do 90% of the work), it was easy to just wear armor if I was worried about getting stung, the honey was the perfect Christmas gift for everyone, and it made for good cocktail talk.
Did you learn the art of beekeeping from someone?
When I decided to get into it, I immediately found a local apiary that had classes. Fortunately for me, Warm Colors Apiary was only a few miles from my house, with Dan Conlon giving classes. I took a two-weekend course and was on my way. Best investment ever.
What is special and/or unique about urban beekeeping?
Lots of heavy lifting. What I mean is that you can’t just pull up in your truck and load in 100lb honey supers. Usually you’re schlepping them by hand, down stairs or even ladders. It’s a blessed day when you have elevator access directly to the roof. And that’s the other unique aspect: rooftop or otherwise out of the way locations. Rooftops are by far the typical location for urban hives. But they can also be on balconies, disused fire escapes, vacant lots surrounded by old razor wire fence and a few junked cars, even abandoned elevated railways.
You keep bees all over the city: do you think bees prefer one borough or neighborhood over another?
Nope. They’ll fly ~5 miles if they have to, so they don’t have issues with representing Queens or being raised out in Brooklyn (sorry, couldn’t help the LL Cool J song reference!).
What kind of hives do you use and why?
Vanilla Langstroths. Most ubiquitous equipment in the US. Easy to inspect and manage. Nothing against other hive designs, whatever works for you and all.
What kind of bees do you keep (Russian? Italian?)? Tell us about them!
Whatever is available, though mostly Russian. They seem to be hardier with winter survival and mite resistance, also make more honey. But they love to swarm, so I have to be on them a lot in the spring since a swarm shutting down a midtown intersection is never the best PR.
How did your bees fare over the winter?
This past winter, as cold as it was, was great. We only lost 25% of our hives and most of those I knew were iffy at the end of last season. Now I’m splitting the survivors like crazy just to keep them from swarming.
Give us your craziest urban beekeeping/swarm-related story?
Oh, definitely the fire hydrant hive. Our first season in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, we got a call from Facilities. There is a huge area of the Yard that is the old civil war era hospital campus and parade grounds. It’s been abandoned for 40 years and looks like a set from The Walking Dead: amazing old houses and the giant marble hospital, with vines growing all over everything, trees poking through, a football field that is only identifiable as such by the goal posts sticking up through the chest high wild flowers. It’s an awesome spot, lots of TV shows and movies have been filmed there.
Navy Yard Facilities was re-activating the fire hydrant system so a tenant could take possession of that area. And what’d they find? A feral colony had set up shop in an open fire hydrant. Talk about outdoing the three little pigs: my house is made of cast iron! Facilities knew about our beekeeping in other areas of the Yard and wanted us to come remove them rather than having them exterminated. I brought a group of our beekeeping students, facilities showed up, we disassembled the top of the hydrant and pulled out these amazing long, skinny combs filled with a thriving colony. We transferred them all into a regular hive and relocated it to one of our rooftops. It was a super fun day, and some of our friends made a short video about it!
If you were a bee, what caste of bee would you want to be?
Guard bee. "Sorry, you’re not on the list."