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Honeybees have long been about as welcome in New York City as poisonous snakes. They were classified as wild and dangerous animals and banned by the city's Department of Health. That meant beekeepers had to go clandestine, keeping secret hives in backyards, in gardens, on roofs. Now, the agency has lifted its ban, and beekeepers are coming out of the closet.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: On a warm spring Sunday in Central Park, 110 people are sitting inside on chairs for three hours in a building next to the park zoo listening to beekeeper Jim Fischer teaching them how to raise bees.

Mr. JIM FISCHER (Director, Gotham City Honey Co-Op): Yikes, I got stung. Well, you're a beekeeper, expect it. You're going to get stung. Have you done worse things, stubbing your toe? Yes, you have.

ADLER: This class started when beehives were still illegal in New York, but interest is now growing. People did get fined up to $2,000, and there were about a dozen complaints a year, but most hives weren't noticed.

Take Deborah Greig. She's the urban agriculture coordinator of East New York Farms. We're at a half-acre community garden that grows about 15,000 pounds of food a year in a very diverse and poor community in Brooklyn that is home to 180,000 people.

Ms. DEBORAH GREIG (Urban Agriculture Coordinator, East New York Farms): There's not a lot of access to good food in the neighborhood, very few grocery stores.

ADLER: And the community - West Indians, Russians, Latinos and Bangladeshi they want foods that aren't easily available, and they want local honey. Greig oversees two hives.

Ms. GREIG: We've been keeping bees for about six years now. And we...

ADLER: So, you were keeping them even when they were illegal?

Ms. GREIG: Yes.

ADLER: When it was illegal, did you get into any trouble or...

Ms. GREIG: No. I think part of that is because the folks in this community are particularly connected to their agricultural roots. And...

ADLER: And they saw this as good.

Ms. GRIEG: Yeah, I mean, how can honey not be good? And we've actually, the only times that folks have gotten stung by bees in this garden have been by wasps, which aren't bees at all.

ADLER: We get into our bee jackets with those veiled hoods. Jim Fischer, who taught that class and who runs the Gotham City Honey Co-op, is helping out.

Looks really active. I mean, there are...

Ms. GREIG: I know. There might even be more space already. I can't believe that.

ADLER: How many bees are we talking about in a hive like this?

Mr. FISCHER: Thirty to forty thousand maybe, at maximum.

ADLER: And more to come as spring progresses. Greig has opened the hive, which looks a little like a file cabinet, and is cleaning it out. Then she removes one of the trays.

Mr. FISCHER: It's okay, it's okay.

Ms. GREIG: It's all right. That's the (unintelligible)?

Mr. FISCHER: Yeah. But you can see that there's a nice patch of brood there on that one frame and that means the queen is - there she is right there. Bingo.

ADLER: Is that the queen?

Ms. GREIG: Oh, it is.

Mr. FISCHER: Oh, yeah.

ADLER: Is that the queen? That's the queen?

Now, I have to admit, to me, she just looks like a slightly bigger bee.

Mr. FISCHER: Right there.

Ms. GREIG: See them following her around.

Mr. FISCHER: Yeah, see? She's freaking; she's running. We disturbed her.

ADLER: One hive can produce a hundred to 150 pounds of honey. Fischer says with stories of bees dying out, what's it with save the whales?

Mr. FISCHER: Now, it's the bees. The bees have become this symbol of keeping the environment away from a path towards disaster. It's really not about the bees, or the honey at all. It's about growing local food, and the realization that you don't just put seeds in the ground and toss some water on them. It's more complex process.

ADLER: Translation: even in New York City, trees and plants need to be pollinated by bees.

Back in that classroom, Fischer says although beekeeping is now legal, given panicky neighbors, stealth is often a wise course.

Mr. FISCHER: We paint beehives to look like rooftop air conditioning units. I have a little jacket that I wear when I go up on roofs that says, Al's Air Conditioning. There is no such company.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADLER: There's still a little bit of outlaw in New York City's beekeepers.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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