In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Andrew Coté.
Andrew Coté was born into beekeeping. His father, grandmother, and great-grandfather were all beekeepers before him. The tradition likely goes back further than that, but at the very least, he is a fourth-generation beekeeper, with over 130 years of history to prove it. “Harboring honeybees was as much part of everyday life as speaking French in the rural family home in northern Quebec,” he explains. Despite this beekeeping birthright, Andrew’s career path wasn’t particularly linear. He tried his hand at academia before deciding to follow in his family’s footsteps. “No one forced me to work with the bees and I didn’t, at first, have a particular drive to work with them,” he admits. “For me, beekeeping was a conduit to spending time with my father, whom I adored.”
That’s why in 2005, Andrew launched Andrew’s Honey with his father and brother, selling jars of honey online and at the Union Square Greenmarket, where their customers include restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern and food world luminaries like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Padma Lakshmi. The trio maintains beehives in Connecticut and New York state, as well as in all five boroughs of New York City. Their beehives can be found on the rooftops of landmark buildings in Manhattan, on the grounds of the United Nations headquarters, and at the Queens County Farm Museum.
On top of his beekeeping duties, Andrew offers bee doctor consultations, wrangles bees for media and entertainment endeavors, and leads urban honey tours. He also published a book of essays about his beekeeping experiences called Honey and Venom: Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper. Here, he reflects on the highs and lows of his career journey.
Eater: What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
Andrew Coté: It isn’t just standing there on the rooftop, admiring the view and smiling at the bees. It’s waking up very early, heavy lifting, lots of driving, most meals eaten standing up or while driving, not enough sleep, standing at the farmers market for 14 hours at a stretch, and interacting with many wonderful people and dealing with many people who leave much to be desired. It’s getting stung, wearing clothes that are always sticky and stained, not having time for much social activity. It’s being a carpenter, painter, mechanic.
It’s harvesting honey, centrifuging honey, bottling honey, labeling bottles, dealing with wholesalers and market managers, cash apps and banks, insurances, clients, and schools. It’s answering endless requests from journalists and people who ask questions via the website, Instagram, Twitter, email, or in person. It’s fulfilling pollination contracts with farms all over the Northeast and a few as far south as Florida. There’s just lots to manage in order to make ends meet.
But to me, there is nothing more focusing and meditative than working alone with the bees. Whether I am rusticating in some rural apiary or atop the Waldorf Astoria Midtown hotel with a multibillion-dollar vista, if I am focused on the frame of bees in my hands, and watching them in their own organized chaos, flittering this way and that, with their own unique alchemy turning sunshine into honey, I am still entranced.
These days, I am often asked to do interesting things like set up bee fences to keep elephants from trampling the crops at a Tanzanian orphanage, or teach queen breeding to newly minted Icelandic beekeepers, or give theoretical and practical courses to budding beekeepers in Fiji, or set up an apiary to pollinate an orchard on Cayman Brac. I feel very fortunate to be able to cobble out a living doing something I love to do, handle bees.
What would surprise people about your job?
I think it would surprise people how much hard work and expense goes into producing real, quality local honey — particularly the honey from New York City rooftops. There is so much heavy, back-breaking, sweaty work involved, and so many expenses, from insurance to heavy duty vehicles to gas to tolls to parking and beyond, that I have become immune to the complaining of those who constantly whinge about the price of the rooftop honey (which incidentally hasn’t gone up in 10 years).
It is nice honey and [we believe it] alleviates the symptoms of seasonal pollen allergies. I think people probably don’t, and perhaps don’t even need to, understand how much toil goes into creating this product. All of the work for the scant amount of honey each urban colony produces would likely come as a surprise. So these drops are precious.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
I dropped out of high school after ninth grade. I later entered community college, where no one verified I hadn’t graduated high school. I finally cobbled together an undergraduate degree after darkening the doors of five different colleges and universities, in three countries. I was always a good student. I just didn’t (and don’t) have any patience for the bullshit inherent in higher education. Later, I earned a masters and then started a PhD, though I never defended it. Still, I dove into academia and won a Fulbright teaching scholarship in the Republic of Moldova.
No education, formal or otherwise, need be wasted. Though I can’t claim that my bachelors degree in Japanese studies, earned in Kyoto, instructs my daily machinations, it is nice to chat with the many Japanese-speaking tourists and residents who frequent the Union Square Greenmarket. Our stall is listed in most Japanese tourist guides to New York City, with specific mention that I am a Japanese-speaking beekeeper. This is fun and provides a stream of new customers.
When was the first time you felt successful?
One proud moment was when the Museum of Modern Art asked me to assist them in producing a living exhibit in the sculpture garden, Pierre Huyghe’s work Untilled. It was 2015, and it was a cement statue of a reposed woman whose head was a living beehive. The exhibit will return to MoMA in June 2023 until mid-August, so if anyone is interested in seeing the honeycomb head and about 40,000 live honeybees — all of which are free to come and go as they please — then come on down. Friday afternoons are free, but be ready to stand in line.
I was also pleased as punch when I had 11 offers to publish my book, Honey and Venom: Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper.
How has the pandemic affected your career?
I was, of course, saddened by the loss of life and no troubles I had can compare to that. But business was certainly very poor. The farmers market customers generally consist of three groups for Andrew’s Honey: tourists, restaurants, and commuters. All three of those demographics evaporated one week in March 2020 and didn’t reappear for years, so it was economically a challenging time.
I also had to remove many of my rooftop beehives from buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn where I was no longer granted access. Moving a mass of 200 pounds of wood, wax, and live bees from a rooftop, sometimes down ladders and several flights of stairs, presents a sizable challenge. But I embraced the change.
How are you making change in your industry?
I don’t have quite enough hubris to believe that I am changing my industry, but I relish being a part of the changes for the better that do occur within it. That said, beekeeping has changed so little in the past 170 years or so that change is usually fleeting and we relapse back to the old ways. I still use some of my great-grandfather’s equipment. I can think of no industry that has changed as little in the last near two centuries as beekeeping.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Take up beekeeping as a hobby, but not as a profession. It is an incredibly difficult way to make a living. One must diversify, as there is no one stream that will produce sizable income. And aside from environmental concerns and increasing challenges of keeping honeybees alive, the exponential growth of urban beekeeping is unsustainable. Many believe the more bees the better. Not so. There are 258 types of bees in New York City. Honeybees are merely one type. There is only so much forage to go around. There is a tipping point and we are close to it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in New York City.