Calm Among The Swarm - Creatures of New York
Recently our head beekeeper, Nick Hoefly, was interviewed for a project called "Creatures of New York" by FIG.
Written by Frances Thomas
There’s no official track to becoming a beekeeper. “It can be done from nothing,” says Nick Hoefly, 35, a professional apiarist based in Astoria, Queens. It helps to take a course or read a book — Hoefly got his Master Beekeeper certification from Cornell University in 2020 — but technically, anyone can get a hive and call themself a beekeeper.
Hoefly wasn’t always a bee enthusiast. As a kid in small- town Louisiana, he was obsessed with outer space and astronauts. He pursued an undergrad degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Central Florida and enrolled with the Air Force ROTC, determined to make it on a space shuttle. Then, midway through sophomore year, a single test result brought his dream to a halt. “I have one eye that focuses slightly slower than the other,” he says. “It was just outside the tolerance they allow.”
Hoefly ended up with a degree in digital media and, in 2010, moved to New York City with his wife, Ashley. He found work in video production, making web series for the History Channel and a smattering of TV commercials, and by 2014, he and Ashley had saved enough to buy a home — their first — in Astoria. “All of a sudden I had my own space,” he recalls. “I had a rooftop and a little front yard, and I wanted to do something with it.” He called a friend who was also a new homeowner and they started brainstorming ideas. At some point beekeeping came up, and Hoefly was intrigued. He joined a hive crowdfunding campaign, drove down to Wilkes-Barre, PA to buy a beginner’s hive (replete with a queen and 12,000 young bees), and committed to a year of beekeeping.
“It was a very fun year,” he says, looking back on that first foray into the world of bees. But it was also time-consuming, and not exactly cheap (a basic set of equipment can run hundreds of dollars). “I figured if I got more hives, I could sell some honey and keep some honey,” he says. “That's where it all started.”
By “it,” he means Astor Apiaries, the full-service bee company he’s run with Ashley since 2016. Beyond selling Hoefly’s own locally produced honey and beeswax, the business offers beginner beekeeping workshops and on-site hive management services throughout the city’s five boroughs.
Living in New York City, you don’t encounter bee hives much, if ever; that doesn’t mean they’re not there. “Most beekeepers have their hives hidden,” says Hoefly. “Especially in the city.” After six years of beekeeping, he’s not even sure how many hives are in his own neighborhood.
“Astoria is pretty dense with hives,” he says, “but those are only the hives I know about.”
For the record, beekeeping is legal in New York City — it has been since 2010. But the apiary community has yet to formalize in any unified way. “It’s very disorganized,” Hoefly says, explaining that there were a handful of guerrilla beekeeping groups before 2010, and since the practice was legalized, they’ve only become more fragmented. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has 81 registered beekeepers and 326 total beehives on record for 2020, but the actual numbers could be three times as many. Much like the object of their affection, the apis mellifera, apiarists tend to fly under the radar. “If the hives are out of sight, they're out of mind,” says Hoefly, adding, “You can follow all of the rules, but if someone on your block doesn't like the idea of hives near them, they can make beekeeping not very fun.”
That’s why Hoefly spends his days scaling rooftops and fire escapes, balconies and old growth trees — anywhere beyond the pedestrian line of sight. For him, the city exists on two planes: ground level and bee level. When he rides the 7 train, famous for its above-ground tracks with scenic views of Manhattan, the curvilinear skyline glimmers with pollinator potential. “The rooftops are all silver and black.
Hopefully at some point, people will start doing more green roofs and make it better for pollinators in general, not just honey bees,” he says wistfully.
When he’s not multiple stories above ground, he’s scouting fenced-in backyards as far north as White Plains or containing unruly swarms on Staten Island. But most of the time, he’s up a ladder. “We [beekeepers] have to deal with the danger of falling off a building, so that's always something to think about,” he says, adding that “Honey is heavy. A medium box can be like 50 pounds, and you've got to put that on your shoulder and carry it down a ladder.”
It’s hard work — potentially back-breaking, evidently — but to hear Hoefly describe it, it’s magical, too. “When you're inside a cloud of bees, it's the same exhilaration you have going down the first drop on a rollercoaster,” he says. “In my first year I would panic, but I’ve learned to find a happy place. I get real still and and mindful of why I'm opening a hive and what I'm looking for and what I'm doing.” While he doesn’t consider himself particularly meditative in general, he recognizes that something special occurs when he’s working with bees: “I forget about all the activity going on around and just focus on my work. It’s very relaxing.”
Even when things go awry — if a queen bee has mated with an unusually aggressive male drone, producing a “hot” colony, or a swarm gets agitated by loud noises or sudden movements, Hoefly says he can remain calm. Getting stung comes with the job (“There's no way to have honey bees and not get stung at some point”), but it is a lot less common than the media would have you believe. “In every Looney Tunes cartoon that has bees, a beehive gets thrown at the bad guy and then the bees chase him down the street,” says Hoefly. “It takes time to unlearn that and make the distinction between bees and wasps. Wasps are very territorial and defensive; bees, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about you.”
For Hoefly, the hardest part about beekeeping isn’t eluding stings or lugging 50 pounds of honey down a ladder; it's timing. “There are a hundred different ways to do any technique or manipulation, and you only get to harvest honey once a year,” he says. “If you mess it up, you've got to wait a whole other year before you can try again.” Amid the frenzied, relentlessly competitive work culture of New York City — where tight deadlines and quick returns are table stakes — beekeeping is a rare vestige of a bygone era: one in which work and life are tethered to the rhythms of the natural world. “I’m learning to slow down a bit,” says Hoefly. “It’s a long-term education.”
He brings that same steady patience to his business. “It started as a hobby and we've nurtured it from there,” he says, adding that he’d love to hire a staff one day, but he’s in no rush. “I just want to keep beekeeping, you know? We'll see how far it goes.”