Flight of the Bumble Bees
When the world’s biggest bee brains convened in Montpellier, France, for the hugely significant 41st Apimondia Congress, the big buzz was on a strange phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Basically, the bee world is in decline.
Nearly 5, 000 attendees from 86 countries gathered in the South of France in this pretty university town during the autumn of 2009 to drum up a plan to combat the ongoing plight of bees and their population loss. After all, no honey bees = no food.
Canada, one impassioned chef of a historic luxury hotel was turning chef-dom on its head.
In between serving haute cuisine at the palatial Fairmont Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto, chef David Garcelon donned his beekeeper suit and, armed with the tools of the trade, charged up to the 14th floor rooftop to tend to his three unconventional beehives. Surrounded by walls of skyscrapers, the only visible green is the variegated old copper roof, the rooftop garden and the distant Toronto Islands.
By making this revolutionary leap in 2008, the Fairmont Royal York instantly became the world’s first urban hotel to have a rooftop apiary. To date, it still holds the undisputed claim for being the first hotel rooftop apiary in the world.
Today, 20 properties in the luxury hotel brand boast their own apiaries alongside other hotel chains such as the Marriott and InterContinental. Why, even the White House in Washington, D.C., now houses a beehive next to the famous White House Garden. “This year (we got) 175 pounds of honey, ” said executive chef Bill Yosses to a Montreal Gazette food writer last month.
It’s no surprise a mini beekeeping boom has invaded other hotel rooftops from Paris to Mount Kenya to Times Square.
This fall, I too jumped on the honey bandwagon and donned the white beekeeper smock as I roamed the Royal York’s rooftop apiary with head beekeeper Melanie Coates on an out-of-this-world mission.
I felt like a cross between an astronaut in a lunar outfit and an alien. Together, we roamed the now famous 14th floor in search of bees.
A spectacular backdrop of the city sat amid a concrete jungle embraced by a forest of skyscrapers. A cluster of pistachio-painted green hive boxes resembled chic miniature condos, with names like Honeymoon Suite and the Royal Sweet.
“We’ve just reintroduced a new queen in the Honeymoon Suite, so we’ll leave her alone, ” said Melanie as we shuffled over to the Royal Sweet.
“Oh, this is looking really nice, ” she said, eying the perfectly symmetrical honeycomb cells on the frame. With bees buzzing around, the former Royal York PR executive—she recently left her post to devote her attention full time to urban beekeeping—told me she views beekeeping as an honour.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, September was recently declared National Honey Month, with a day dubbed the Bee Buzzaar for apicultural product sales. Honey is so sacred that the government also implemented a new program known as the Virgin Fresh Beekeeping Project to expand apicultural specialty products (honey, propolis, pollen, bee colonies).
In sparsely populated St. John (nearly 5, 000 residents), the Virgin Fresh Beekeeping Project reported 15 beekeepers in 2008; by 2010, more than 100 beekeepers were actively pursuing apiculture.
Caneel Bay Resort, sprawls on 170 acres and, yes, it has a head beekeeper. Elmo Rabsatt Sr. has taught an estimated 50 residents the tricks of the trade.
During my stay, Elmo was buzzing around the island on bee calls, so I hiked a foot path away from the cabins and made my way to the secluded Honeymoon Beach. The beach is off-the-beaten path, away from public areas, and it’s there where the hive activity was in full action. The honey is used on-property for culinary creations, spa treatments and is for sale in the gift shop.
An amazing fact about honey is there is no before date. “This is the only non-pasteurized product we can ingest that never goes bad, ” said Turtle Bay Estate House’s executive chef, Anthony Dawodu, who uses the organic nectar in his honey-infused menu.
The Final Buzz
But it’s back at the rooftop in downtown Toronto, where it all came together for me on that sun-kissed autumn morning. Thanks to Melanie, I have a newfound appreciation of those pesky yellow and black insects that seem to appear out of nowhere at every patio lunch, and which many of us take great pains to swat.
Remember, bees pollinate our whole planet. The humble, mysterious, magical bee is what makes our world so sweet. So the next time you smell a flower, or bite into an apple, or pear or peach, you can thank the bees.