by Joseph Konig and Gary Axelbank
August 15, 2019
Shortly after moving to City Island in 2003, Dr. Nancy Kheck noticed something was missing from the popular nautical community in the Bronx’ eastern-most reaches: insects. Curiously, butterflies, fireflies, dragonflies, bees, and other bugs were noticeably absent from the island’s marshlands and green spaces.
During a summertime visit to her City Island backyard, Kheck told thisistheBronX that the Giuliani administration’s pesticide-heavy response to fears of the mosquito-transmitted West Nile Virus in 2000 was partly to blame for the void. But, in fact, insects on a whole have suffered greatly in recent decades, with one 2019 study suggesting 40 percent of all insect species are in decline.
So Kheck and her family began doing their part to preserve one insect that they say is invaluable to the environment: the honeybee. For the last fifteen years, they’ve maintained a thriving apiary of four-to-six beehives in their backyard.
Kheck’s husband, Patrick Gannon, first started keeping bees while working and studying in England. The two later met while working at Mount Sinai in Manhattan and studying for their Ph.Ds. Though that borough did not lend itself to the beekeeping lifestyle, they were quick to embrace it once they moved to City Island.
“We recognized that we were in an environment where bees could thrive,” Kheck said. Because of their backgrounds in the biological sciences, Kheck and Gannon felt it was their duty to help the bee population in the name of ecological conservation.
Watch this remarkable video as Dr. Kheck opens up a beehive to sample fresh honey.
How do they stock the hundreds of thousands of bees that they keep? The bees arrive on City Island through the mail three pounds at a time, ordered online from breeders in Long Island, Georgia or California. The post office will call and say “Excuse me, you have a package that’s buzzing,” Kheck laughed.
Their backyard apiary houses the bees in tall green hives that look more like dressers than the sort of cartoon beehive that would catch the eye of Winnie the Pooh. Each hive has a solar-powered fan that keeps the air flowing during the hottest days of the summer.
Lately, the Bronx beekeepers have experimented with Canadian bees, hoping they will be more resistant to cold winters. Now according to Kheck, colder winters, hotter summers and a variety of other environmental factors contribute to less stability in the hives.
But there’s another danger to the bee population. One massive issue for honey bee populations is the Varroa mite, a parasite that compromises bee immune systems and leaves them vulnerable to disease or pesticides. There are miticides designed to combat the Varroa mite available commercially, but Kheck prefers a natural solution.
“The last two to three years, we have used natural fruit acids in order to remove the mites,” Kheck said. She often drives to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. to pick up the acids and other supplies from a beekeeping store there.
Actually, despite their passion for beekeeping and the effort they put into it, maintaining an apiary is a side gig for Kheck and Gannon. Both study neurobiology and work in the administration of a medical school in St. Lucia, an island nation in the Caribbean. Their common knowledge of science and the environment fuels their commitment.
“We strongly believe that bees are an incredibly important species that needs to be saved,” Kheck explained. “Honey bees are an incredibly complex, unique social species. They have abilities that almost no other animals have.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, honey bees pollinate billions of dollars in crops each year and provide necessary pollination for millions of more plants in the wild. Kheck indicated that the the positive effect of her colonies of bees goes beyond the boundaries of their City Island backyard. She says they help pollinate gardens across the island and the Bronx. She estimates her bees get as far as the Botanical Garden and the linden trees of Pelham Parkway.
“Bees will fly anywhere from the yard next door to 10 miles away, if not more, in order to find nutritious sources of pollen and nectar,” Kheck said. She says that means that the honey Kheck’s bees create from the nectar they gather gets its flavor from the flora of the Bronx, which makes it truly local honey.
“They do very well without any human intervention,” Kheck said. “The only reason that beekeepers actually engage with bees is to rob them of their honey, for the most part.”
Once the honey is collected, Kheck jars it and shares it with friends. She’s donated it to fundraisers and will give it as a wedding gift, but the only place in the world that sells Kheck’s honey is Kaleidoscope, an art gallery along City Island Avenue.
Anyone is welcome to come by the apiary and learn about bees, but the honey is as special as the bee that makes it. “There’s like 20,000-plus species of bees,” Kheck said. “Only one produces honey.”