Interview with beekeeper Zan Asha

On Sunday, April 22, we’ll be hosting two beekeeping classes with Zan Asha, one of the New York City beekeepers that appeared in the documentary Queen of the Sun. Here is a chance for you to get to know her better and learn a little about beekeeping. If you’d like to join us on April 22, click here to register for the classes on Antiquity Oaks in Cornell, IL.

Deborah: How long have you been keeping bees? 

Zan: I’ve actually been keeping bees for 6 years, but as a 3rd generation beekeeper, there is a wealth of knowledge through speaking with my mother, the daughter of the original beekeeper, my grandfather. Much of what I do with beekeeping is founded in the same WWII era, European principles my grandfather had: no pesticides and limited use of medications, and working with the bees based on their behavior and social structure, which is far more natural and productive, from bees’ perspective, and therefore for the keepers.

Why do you keep bees?

There are many reasons, not least of which is preserving a lovely family legacy and history of keeping bees. There are a great number of interesting, if not funny, stories of my family keeping bees before some of the more modern amenities for beekeeping existed, and it’s a good feeling to know that you are carrying some of those traditions along.

But the beauty of keeping bees, themselves, is rewarding unto itself. Obviously, there is the prospect of having your own local, raw honey (which is farm more medicinal and beneficial than store brought honey, which has recently proven to be ultra-diluted, void of beneficial products, and often cheaply shipped from China!)
but there are so many intricacies in learning how to care for bees, that is fascinating just working with them and observing them. You will also, in a sense, be helping yourself, in that bees have been estimated to pollinate up to one-half of all staple crops in the world. So you will continue survivability of what you eat and also the grazing material your MEAT eats. 

Tell us about your set-up — number of hives, located where, what type of hives, etc.

I currently work with my landlady, who is a well known environmental activist in New York City, and this beekeeping project is known as Bronx Bees. We currently have 8 hives on the green roof of her building, in the Bronx.

The green roof is an ideal space, and I’d recommend them in more urban operations: the location is out of line-sight of most people, the height allows for a clean and unblocked take-off for the bees (no bushes, people, or other obstacles to fly over), and the green-roof has been proven to keep a constant temp of 70 degrees in most weather.

We currently use the Langstroth (box) hive, which is the most commonly used hive throughout the world. I would prefer to change some of these out for the Top Barre or even Warre hive, but this is the compromise that we have between her and I. Since the Langstroth is quite common, it is easy to change parts out, should we need to. 

What’s the biggest challenge for a city beekeeper?

Cities, by nature, are more crowded with people, and this is probably the hardest aspect in beekeeping: convincing people that bees are actually not going to automatically attack them on sight.

Bees are actually much more REACTIONARY than people think, and will rarely attack first, unless you are directly over, or in, their hives. In that case, they WILL sting to defend their offspring or honey stores. Otherwise, I’ve actually stood in front and around their hives, and they will simply fly around you.

But you may need to convince your neighbors otherwise, and this kind of diplomacy might be hard, especially during swarm season!

This might also work against you, if you wish to keep bees but your landlord rejects the idea. Luckily, more and more cities are taking up beekeeping clubs and classes, so that’s a good way to learn beekeeping.

Other than that, in my experience, beekeeping seems no different in urban areas than anywhere else. 

What would you like to do with your bees in the future?

I guess you could say I am currently doing the things, in regards to beekeeping, that I had always hoped to do. My vision was always two fold: keeping bees in a natural (dare I say kind) way, and provide quality raw honey in New York City and teaching others to keep bees in this same fashion, and break a long cycle of commercialized beekeeping methods, which are probably more prevalent than people realize.

I’ve been very lucky in the teaching aspect: last year, a fellow writer and farmer in Iowa, Maggie Howe, invited me out and actively promoted me in such a way that it actually became possible for me to teach large groups of people the amazing art of beekeeping. Since then I have been in Iowa and Illinois teaching these methods, which I think are particularly important in areas where commercial farming, GMOs, and pesticides are the norm. I feel I am teaching a lost generation of beekeepers to take up more organic practices and hopefully we can begin the process of learning and healing ourselves and our planet, in some small way, in our work with these extraordinary creatures.

2 thoughts on “Interview with beekeeper Zan Asha”

    • Hi Deborah! Thanks so much for this lovely write up! I'm really looking forward to coming to Antiquity Oaks to teach this form of beekeeping!


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