Like a hot water heater or jumbo shrimp (thank you, George Carlin), Andrew Coté’s job is an oxymoron. Coté is a New York City beekeeper.
In his often amusing, anecdotal memoir, “Honey and Venom,” Coté offers the latest buzz on keeping an apiary in the Big Apple.
Coté is a fourth-generation “beek,” as they call themselves. He is also a co-founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association and, perhaps more impressive, a group called Bees Without Borders. In that latter role, he has traveled to impoverished areas of the globe to teach beekeeping as a way to alleviate poverty.
A career in apiculture seems a natural given his background, but, ironically, it wasn’t his first choice. “Beekeeping was clearly in my bloodline, but it would be decades before I would consider it to be anything other than a hobby,” he writes.
Meanwhile, he worked at a succession of mostly unsatisfying jobs, each one for about a minute. “I have been fired or strongly encouraged to move on from almost every other job I ever had,” he writes, including stints teaching in both the Greenwich, Conn., and the Arthur Murray Dance school systems.
At the same time, he continued to help his father maintain the family hives in Connecticut. When he went to farmers markets in New York to sell the honey, he invariably received requests for “beekeeping services”: help in maintaining existing hives and setting up new ones.
Eventually, it because a full-time gig. He currently looks after dozens of hives around New York: on the lawn of the U.N., at cemeteries in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and — supposedly the highest apiary anywhere — on the 72nd floor of a hotel near Central Park.
Coté conveys one adventure after another: teaching beekeeping in Iraq, Uganda and elsewhere for Bees Without Borders; capturing swarms (bees that left their hive looking for a new home and alighted everywhere from a church steeple to the roof of the Old Times building in midtown); attending a bee conference in China, where he visits a medical doctor who practices apitherapy — using bee stings to cure various ailments, popular around the world but not scientifically vetted.
He tells one lighthearted anecdote after another: how bees were used as weapons in the times of the Romans and Greeks, with hives catapulted behind the walls of besieged cities; how his father was beekeeper to a demanding Martha Stewart; and how the beek field can “be rife with rivalries and animosity, turf wars and hostile takeovers.”
Everything is told with Coté’s light touch and excellent comic timing. For example, early on he explains that given his schedule, he couldn’t figure out how to find time to write the book. “Then it hit me like a bus. Rather I was hit by a bus.” “Honey & Venom” began while he was recuperating.
Despite that inauspicious debut, this book is fun, a near perfect bee-ch book (no, I will not apologize) for the summer.
Near perfect. Coté barely mentions colony collapse disorder (for which there is no known cause), and only briefly discusses the general decline in bee populations due to pesticide use and global climate change. I at least would have liked to know what if anything I could do to help.
Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.
Honey and Venom: Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper
By: Andrew Coté.
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 295 pages, $27.