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Brooklyn bees take a bath

For me, one of the saddest stories resulting from hurricane Sandy was the devastation of twenty-five beehives belonging to the Brooklyn Grange. The hives were on a Navy pier and part of the grange’s urban farming project.

I’ve read several accounts of the incident and seen many photos. One showed brood boxes, charmingly decorated by local artists, bobbing in the East River alongside clothing, plastic toys, and a loaf of bread. Another photo showed the remains of a washed-out coffee shop, frames hanging from barstools and draped carelessly across the counter amid shattered glass and a shopping cart.

But what most affected me was an article at in which the chief beekeeper of the Brooklyn Grange describes why he didn’t move the hives. “There was little we could do,” he said, “without a Herculean effort.” He goes on to say that the loss was heartbreaking because all of the hives were donated by a retired Pennsylvania beekeeper and possessed “stellar genetics.”

Let’s review. You’ve got beehives on a pier in the direct path of a super storm—not a good situation. You run the risk of losing not only the bees with superior genetics, but the hives as well—also bad. But, you’ve been given plenty of advance notice by the weather service and you’re the beekeeper. So what do you do? You decide it’s too much work and go home?

I’ve read the objections. Only six hives fit in a pickup. It’s hard to find a place to put twenty-five hives. You can’t endanger humans to save bees. And so on.

I wouldn’t expect someone to be out on a pier once the storm arrived, but there were several days to get ready. In the past, I have moved four double-deep hives in a pickup all by myself using a combination of straps, hand truck, ramps, and pulleys. Did it take a long time? Yes. Was it difficult? Yes. Was it Herculean? Do I look like Hercules?

I get the feeling the beekeeper assessed the job as if it were all or nothing. Move all twenty-five or move none. But he could have started on the job; he could have moved some of the hives. Maybe he had time to save one, or four, or seven. That would be better than none. And he didn’t need to store all twenty-five in one place. He could have put some here, some there.

Someone argued that those storage places may have flooded too. That’s very true, but it’s hardly a reason not to try, hardly a reason to give up before you start. In fact, it’s an excellent reason for dividing the hives between several different locations.

If a beekeeper has no sense of responsibility for his charges, he should get out of the business and find another line of work. I know beekeepers who would have been out there moving those hives no matter what, who would have worked, exhausted, until the job was done. And even if they lost all the hives in the process, they could rest easy—no excuses, no apologies—knowing they were true beekeepers and knowing that trying and failing is better than not trying at all.