On a rooftop high above a congested Somerville street, they make their home.
Below, passersby pause to breathe in the fragrance of plump Concord grapes hanging from a driveway arbor and marvel at a peach tree across the street so fertile that the gardener has had to prop it up with 2-by-4s to support this summers crop.
It would be logical to credit the house gardener for a green thumb. But Rod Kreimeyer believes it is the hardworking honey bees of his urban hive that are responsible for transforming this busy street into Botticellis La Primavera. The oddity that is city beekeeping is not found just in Somerville. In JP, Mike Graney keeps a hive on his front lawn, as pets. There also are beekeepers in Dorchester and Mattapan.
For the past six years, Kreimeyer, a 56-year-old exterminator from upstate New York, has happily coexisted with 60,000 bees, who live in what looks like a smaller version of a Somerville triple-decker atop Best Pest Control Services, his Elm Street business. Since his bees took to pollinating the neighborhood, Kreimeyer maintains, one womans rose bush has tripled in fragrant red blooms.
Despite the positive changes, life hasnt always been rosy on Elm Street. Last summer, a next-door neighbor who has since moved, Jim Verzino, called to blame Kreimeyer for a huge swarm of bees inhabiting his tree. Upon checking his rooftop apiary, however, Kreimeyer found the accused all accounted for. He was able to tell that, he said, because there would have been less honey in his hive if his bees had swarmed elsewhere. One parent, concerned about the hives proximity to the John F. Kennedy Elementary School, filed a complaint with the Board of Health.
He complained that yellowjackets were bothering his kids. The inspectors came down and watched the bees fly in and out of the hive. They realized the bees dont come down to the sidewalk, and so it turned out OK.
Occasionally, Kreimeyer says, schoolchildren come by to note You got bees on your roof!
Sean Kussner, a 20-something East Boston schoolteacher, has been renting the second-floor apartment above Best Pest from Kreimeyer for the last two years. He admits he signed the lease oblivious to the apiary perched a couple of feet away from his bedroom window.
I came by with a friend to show off my new place, and Rod was up on the roof wearing this yellow [bee] suit. I was like . . . Oh, my God, is this going to be a problem?
The short answer so far: No. Kussner says his insect housemates are misunderstood creatures and jokes that they greet him each day, their little wings flapping good morning.
Kreimeyer, a tall wiry man with a gravelly voice, entered his beekeeping hobby by way of an exterminating career. Thirty- three years ago I answered an ad in the paper that said Learn a trade and travel. Well, the trade was exterminating, and the travel was in sanitariums and prisons and upstate New York.
Kreimeyer, who says he is allergic to bee stings, cites his fascination with insects in general as the reason he began beekeeping. When stung, Kreimeyer must give himself an EpiPen injection to avoid going into anaphylactic shock. Why keep bees with such serious potential side effects? Kreimeyer chuckles. I dont bungee jump, so I need to have a little danger in life, he says. And it would be kind of hard to raise a termite family.
Hes only been stung twice over the course of his career: once last summer by a Russian bee (notoriously meaner then their Italian counterparts) and once when removing yellowjackets from a clients yard. The travails of beekeeping, he says, are outweighed by its sweet rewards. He admits to consuming four or five bowls of honey-covered vanilla ice cream a week. And each night after work, he takes a Zen-like pleasure out of watching the bees, which he likens to fuzzy little teddy bears.
It is very calming to watch them. Before I go home, I like to sit on my neighbors porch and watch them buzz in and out.
Kreimeyer harvests honey at the end of the summer and gives away most of it to family, neighbors, and friends. Hes not sure exactly how much honey the bees produce hes never measured, nor has he sold his plastic bear-shaped bottles on store shelves.
I have a lot of friends, he says. In a store theyll just go to somebody I dont know. . . . Also, I like to leave some for the bees. I dont want to be that guy robbing all their honey.
Kreimeyer enjoys acting as a mentor to other community beekeepers, two of whom live just around the corner. And every year, right around this time, he gets a bottle of homemade wine from his Portuguese neighbor, in exchange for a bottle of Rods Rooftop Honey.
Bees in his bloodFor Mike Graney, you might almost say honey runs in his veins. On summer afternoons neighbors often spot him driving his pickup truck full of beekeeping tools like an old-fashioned doctor making house calls. The son of a Woburn beekeeper, Graney, 33, began keeping bees as a way to feed a honey addiction begun in early childhood.
I ate honey every day as a kid, butter and honey sandwiches, he says. When I moved out, I needed a supply of honey for myself. I couldnt buy it at the store. You cant get local honey at Stop & Shop. Graney, chef at Cambridges Pemberton Farms & Garden Center, started his first hive in Jamaica Plains communityrun Leland Street Gardens in 1997. Since then his bee collection has expanded to 10 apiaries in Mattapans City Natives Nursery and one in his own front yard in Jamaica Plain.
Standing in front of his home in army pants, black boots, and a beekeepers yellow veiled hat, Graney is a cross between urban punk and country bumpkin. Shirtsleeves rolled up over tattooed triceps, he lifts out 12 honey-combed frames from their super, a box-shaped holder, to check the amount of honey inside. He prefers not to wear protective gloves, as they get sticky, slow down his work, and, he says, can spread disease among hives. Hed rather risk being stung, and in fact he is this day, on the hand. Twice.
Hundreds of bees buzz in and out of the hive, intent on their work. Graney points out tiny balls of pollen that cling to their back legs, gold dust that he bottles and sells for its high nutritional value. Buried within the bottom layer of the hive, separated from her sterile sisters, is the fertile queen, laying eggs among a bevy of male drones. Each summer Graney harvests a few hundred pounds of honey from his hives and sells it at specialty shops around town.
The hive Graney keeps on his front lawn is his favorite. These bees are my pets, he says smiling. The [hives] in Mattapan are producing the honey I sell. I keep these bees out front because I like to be around them. I go out after dinner with a glass of wine and just watch them coming and going. When its hot and humid in the mornings you come out, and theyre draped out in front of the entrance trying to keep cool. I love that.
Graney, who owns his home, admits that he moved the hive five years ago unbeknownst to neighbors. Other states regulate beehives, but Massachusetts dosnt, according to Graney. I didnt really ask permission. I just let people find out on their own, he says, eyes twinkling. They saw me with the veil kind of poking around but they still didnt know what it was.
Some neighbors were oblivious, others intrigued. But in the nine years the hive has remained rooted to the front yard, theres only been one negative report.
Our neighbors right next door were going to bed, kind of cuddling, Graney recalls.
They were up in their bedroom on a warm summer night, the windows open, and a bee came in and stung him on the neck and ruined the mood.
After taking honey inventory of his JP hive, the next stop on Graneys beekeeping tour is ReVision Urban Farm in Dorchester, which has been offering housing, day care, and training to struggling mothers since the early 90s. There, he offers advice regularly to Sarah Schwartz Sax, the farms grower and manager, who has been maintaining a hive for three years.
We are an urban farm so we cant have cows or chickens, says Schwartz Sax, 24. We wanted to have animals on the farm to demonstrate sustainable agriculture. . . . Its often difficult to get the folks in the shelter interested in the farm, and one of the things that gets people interested, no questions asked, is the honey.
On harvest day last month, Schwartz Sax extracted honey from the hive, while residents teamed together to bottle it and attach ribbons and labels. The honey harvest is sold in Milton at the Thursday afternoon farmers market and in ReVision Urban Farms own backyard to raise money for the women.
Graney pulls his pickup truck to a locked fence at Mattapans City Natives Garden, a community space where he keeps atriums for himself, one for ReVision, and one for Boston Natural Areas Network, for whom he works as personal beekeeper.
Graney says that while the garden has not attracted widespread interest in the community, his honey has gained a following among the local Caribbean population, who frequent an annual City Natives Garden fund-raising event.
In the garden it begins to rain, and Graney stops talking and points skyward. In the hazy afternoon light, thousands of bees can be seen barreling over the chainlink fence from the direction of the Neponset River in the race to get home.
Mike Graneys honey can be found at City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain and Pemberton Farms in Cambridge. ReVision Urban Farms honey is on sale Thursdays through Oct. 12 at the Milton Landing Farmers Market.