Sweet harvest

Tuesday September 11, 2012


David Graves is known everywhere as the man who brought honeybees, hives and beekeeping to New York City rooftops. But at heart and in reality, Graves is a Berkshire farmer.

Here in Becket, he and his wife, Mary, and daughter, Heather, grow tomatoes, giant pumpkins and other produce on their Route 20 farm, and tend fields of wild thyme, goldenrod and seasonal wildflowers for their honey.

He keeps bees on the roof of the sugar house behind the family's Berkshire Berries kitchen and shop.

He got the idea for placing his hives high up after a bear decimated them nearly 30 years ago.

Mother and daughter hand make the jams and jellies. Graves makes any pickles or butters they may sell. They no longer grow fruits and vegetables for their preserves at their farm but buy organic from Nourse Farm in Whately and keep them bagged for use in commercial freezers.

"I make the jelly right here," said Mary Graves pointing to an enormous cooker on a dedicated cook stand in the middle of the kitchen.

"I pour it into jars. Heather screws the lids on and we turn them over on the counter," she said with a big smile.

It is still home-preserving.

Graves is the one who extracts and bottles the honey and boils down maple sap in his sugar house.

He still has the tiny red snow plow truck cab he and his brother used as a sugar house shelter when they were children. They sat outdoors inside the shack and boiled the sap in an open washtub over a 55 gallon drum fitted with a smokestack in front of him.

He and his daughter travel to Manhattan's Union Square organic and other greenmarkets four days a week to sell their honey, maple syrup, jams, jellies and blue Araucana chicken eggs.

He has been doing this since 1993.

"We don't depend on one thing," Graves said. "We diversified."

He has a degree in secondary education and loves to go to schools to teach children about where their food comes from and to care for their environment.

Graves said he got the idea to use roofs around the city "because all I saw was yellow jackets, wasps and hornets -- no black bears -- and lots of flowers everywhere. I thought, ‘What a waste. Wouldn't this be a great place to keep bees?'"

He placed his first three hives in 1996. Throughout years of controversy on one side and support on the other -- with beekeeping becoming illegal in New York City in 1999 and finally being re-legalized in early 2010 -- he grew his urban honey operations. At their peak in 2004, he kept hives in 17 locations in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, with an average of three hives with three or four "supers" (boxes where the bees store the surplus honey they have collected, which Graves extracts for human use) at each spot.

Since 2006, he has seen a drop in honey production in Manhattan. Today, he has one hive each on eight rooftops.

"I'm not about to give up," Graves said. "I'm getting ready to order more bees for next year."

On Monday, Graves got a customer from Osaka, Japan, for his New York City honey.

Yuka Kitabatake was staying on the Upper West Side while visiting the city.

"We came down here just to get this honey," she said. "We saw it in a magazine, that a Union Square Greenmarket vendor was selling rooftop honey, so we wanted to get to some. We are going back to Japan on Wednesday and we are going to give it to our friends as a gift. We bought eight small and one big jar. It's something unusual."


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