Our world is full of unusual natural occurrences that appear to defy scientific explanation. The more that we invent as a species, the more advanced we become as a society, the more prevalent these strange phenomena become.
This story began in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York where beekeepers began noticing that instead of honey, their bees were producing a strange, bright red gunk. Little did they know that getting to the bottom of this phenomenon would result in uncovering one of New York City’s biggest criminal rackets…
Featured photo credit: www.nytimes.com
Brooklyn beekeepers had begun to notice that their bees had started turning red. Well, not their bees per say, but the honey they produced. The keepers could just see the red goo through their translucent stomachs. The hue of the crimson honey looked a lot like the syrup you find in a Shirley Temple, so their first thought was that the insects were eating maraschino cherries.
It Can’t Bee…
There was a maraschino cherry factory in Brooklyn, but it was a fair distance away from the Governor’s Island hives being affected by the strange color: halfway across the harbor in fact. The beekeepers couldn’t believe that the bees would fly all the way across the water to the cherry factory just to get to the liquid, but they clearly underestimated the bees’ love of the saccharine treat…
The beekeepers joined together to find someone to figure out what exactly was in the red gunk the bees were churning into honey. They brought in an apiculturist who analyzed the stuff and found high concentrations of Red Dye # 40 and high fructose corn syrup. That, coupled with a large amount of bees outside the cherry factory, were proof enough that the bees were making the trip after all.
Ralph Mondella and his brother Arthur started with next-to-nothing. In 1948, the brothers opened up a small 1,500 square foot storefront in Brooklyn, New York. Over the years, Dell’s Maraschino Cherries grew and expanded and the factory eventually passed into the hands of Ralph’s son, also named Arthur. He too noticed the bees hanging around his business…
Contact the Experts
Arthur was growing concerned that the bees were going to invade his factory. Though they were mostly harmless, he didn’t like the idea of having insects buzzing about all the time. The Mondella family didn’t want their good name to be sullied by something as simple as a bee infestation. They also didn’t want to kill them all if they could help it.
Beecoming a Problem
The family reached out to John Bozek at the nonprofit Business Outreach Center Network. Bozek in turn contacted the New York City Beekeepers Association (NYCBA), for advice. They were looking for a “bee consultant” to help with what he described as a “serious problem” at the Dell’s factory in Brooklyn…
At the same time, the local beekeeping Brooklynites were getting annoyed that their bees were drinking the factory run-off. The honey they were churning out, because it wasn’t based on any sort of digested pollen, was both shockingly red and awful-tasting. Everyone involved had a valid beef.
Mondella invited the bee experts to come meet with him at the factory. He allowed her unrestricted access to all areas of the property and let him take as many photographs as he liked. The expert of course was looking for bee-based information, she had no idea that Mondella was keeping a secret, second facet of the business down below…
Working with Them
The bee inspector recalled that Arthur Mondella was, as she put it, “An amicable, straightforward guy who was totally open to talking about a solution…he was trying really hard to work with us.” He even offered to put out other syrup colors so they could have rainbow honey to sell. It would taste terrible of course, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea on paper.
Eventually, it was discovered that the bees had been feeding off the vats of cherry syrup as they were transported along the sidewalk to the opposite side of the factory. The best thing they could do was just find a better way to seal the containers. Afterwards, the New York Times ran an article headlined “The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook.” It was publicity that Dell’s didn’t need…
You see, six years before the Red Bees came to light, an informant had told a U.S. postal inspector about a huge marijuana farm in the basement of the cherry factory. The postal inspector in turn reported the potential criminal enterprise to detective investigators at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, but the tip was second hand, and they had no way in.
With Arthur Mondella and the Red Bees of Red Hook now in the papers, it was only a matter of time before his other dealings came to light. The District Attorney had received a tip that Mondella was into something more than cherries and the New York Times gave the government a legitimate way to further what was considered a stalled investigation…
Strange Things Below
The informant had told them that the entrance to the marijuana operation was below ground, behind shelves in the garage where Modella kept his luxury cars. Unable to get a direct warrant, investigators staked out the factory building. Unfortunately for them, there were too many trucks coming and going at all hours to discern any sort of suspicious patterns.
The one thing the investigators did notice was Arthur Mondella himself. He wasn’t your typical factory owner who just got in his car and went home. No, every day, he would get in his car and drive around the block six times or more looking for surveillance. That wasn’t the only unusual thing about his behavior either…
His factory and his small house on Staten Island were outfitted with anti-intruder devices and surveillance cameras. Off accoutrements for a man who made maraschino cherries. At first, they believed that Mondella might be a part of some facet of organized crime. But six weeks of surveillance never showed him in contact with any member of any criminal enterprise.
Besides the occasional cocaine score for himself, there was no sign that Arthur Mondella was involved in any sort of drug trafficking. What the investigators did find, however, was that the factory did have an unusually high amount of water usage: the same kind you might find if someone were running an underground hydroponic garden…
They brought a police dog in front of the building, one that was trained to detect narcotics. The dog became alert, which meant it sensed marijuana. It was enough to secure a warrant. They went into the basement and pulled hard on the shelves behind where cars were parked. Behind the shelves was exactly what the postal inspector had indicated, a secret stairway leading down into a basement that the building’s blueprints had no record of…
The investigators made their way down the steps into a 2,500-square-foot underground marijuana farm. The basement had 120 grow lamps and an irrigation system, which explained where all the excess water was going. It was the largest cannabis operation ever discovered in New York City…
The DA’s office did a little evaluation and found that Arthur Mondella’s “side business” likely had three to five harvests a year, which by modern pot prices, made it a multimillion-dollar illegal operation. Sadly, Mondella’s double life ended in tragedy not long after. The 57-year-old father of three locked himself in the factory bathroom, shouted, “Take care of my kids!” and killed himself.
All Because of Bees
Besides the illegal pot business, people described Arthur Mondella as an overall nice guy. He was by all accounts, intelligent, hard-working, and the well-respected patriarch of his family. All the years of living a secret life must have finally taken their toll. And none of it would ever have happened if it weren’t for a bunch of red bees.