“If I could change one thing about the beekeeping industry,
I would wipe the idea of monoculture out of the human psyche.”

- Zane Illing, New York beekeeper

This project is supported, in part, by a research grant from the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School. The Tishman Center serves as a hub for climate and environmental justice research and practice, with a specific focus on critical, participatory action based research produced in collaboration with frontline, grassroots and community based organizations and coalitions. 

Image: Rural and urban honey samples collected from different sites.

For this project we wanted to explore food production in New York City, as well as the greater New York State, examining issues of biodiversity, small-scale versus industrial agriculture, urban food production, food justice, and food sovereignty. We landed on honey as a case study, due to bees' endangerment and unique ecological role in pollination. Local honey can function as an ecological portrait, as it contains pollen and phenolic compounds derived from the botanical environment, as well as airborne contaminants from the area in which the bees feed. Our goal is to tie these ideas into a series of honey fermentation workshops that explore the science of fermented foods, as well as the social and ecological problems faced by individuals at all levels of honey-related food production.

Images: Site visit at Kutik's Honey Farm.

We began our project by conducting exploratory interviews with individuals working within the field, learning more about the nature of their work and their unique concerns. We started by interviewing commercial beekeepers who use bees both for large-scale honey production and commercial pollination. These beekeepers described an ethical dilemma they faced as honey sales became less lucrative, due to consumer misinformation and market flooding of counterfeit honey (corn and cane syrups disguised as honey). In order to stay in business, beekeepers are forced to use their bees for commercial pollination of monocultures such as industrial-scale almond and blueberry crops. The nature of this work is environmentally unsustainable, as well as extremely stressful to both the bees and beekeepers, exposing them to industrial pesticides, long interstate travel times, and potential hive loss or hive theft. 

Images: Visiting NYC rooftop hives, collecting bee samples.

As we continued to learn about honey production, we identified a prejudice against urban honey, compared to rural honey. Misconceptions regarding the toxicity of the city versus the purity and imagined greater biodiversity of rural areas has led many consumers to believe that urban-produced honey is of inferior quality and full of toxic contaminants. These biases have been encouraged by sensationalized news stories of bees feeding on improperly stored industrial foods, such as vats of maraschino cherries or dyed candy byproducts. However, studies of urban and rural honeys reveal that they are comparable in levels of both antioxidants and heavy metal contaminants. The botanical diversity of the bee environment has a larger impact on the honey than the specific geographical location and plant biodiversity within the city can often be quite high.

Images: Visiting NYC urban rooftop farm at Brooklyn Grange.

Whether bees are kept on city rooftops and feed on park flowers, or whether they are trucked cross-country and feed on industrial monocultures, we believe that the bee biome could be a unique ecological indicator. We speculate that bees exposed to diverse environmental factors will have a correspondingly diverse microbiomes. The microbes we discover on bees and inside their stomachs can potentially tell us much about their environment, as well as be used for fermentation. All these factors ultimately come together in the “terroir” of fermented foods such as mead. We believe that learning to ferment mead and understanding how these elements affect flavor will give a new appreciation for biodiversity, as well as degrees of scale and complexity related to food production.