With its rich array of thyme, rosemary, pineapple sage and lemon basil, the lush hotel garden at the Hilton Tysons Corner seemed fit for a queen. The McLean, Va., hotel, however, ended up with four.
No Bees About It
There are hotels that have bee colonies, on purpose! This article is sure to create quite the buzz.
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
We are on Twitter
And while it’s not unusual for major hotels near Washington, D.C., or New York City, to enjoy the cachet of an occasional royal-in-residence, these queens arrived at their rooftop abodes with more than 50,000 loyal subjects apiece, and quickly integrated themselves into the hotel’s staff.
To say they subsequently became busy as bees would be no turn of cliché: It would be dead-on accurate. The tiny guests’ top-level accommodations consist of four hives – one queen per hive – some 20 yards from the hotel garden, and they are expected to produce as much as 600 pounds of honey by season’s end – up from the 400 pounds collected last year, said beekeeper Tom Elder.
This collective has become Elder’s little pollen nation, and it fits seamlessly into the hotel’s philosophy of sustainability, growing and serving foods raised within 80 miles of this suburban capital city locale.
How sweet it is: From the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan to the Fairmont in San Francisco, major hotels and resorts have been turning their bee teams into the A-Team, affirming a commitment to green practices and the world’s bee preservation, all the while utilizing their own house-grown honey in desserts, drinks, appetizers and even home-brewed beverages. In some cases, the hotels are also providing community education by linking their beekeeping enterprise with inquiring schools and community groups.
“I think it is a very creative thing,” said Tom Webster, past president of the American Association of Professional Apiculturists and an associate professor at Kentucky State University’s College of Agriculture. “The hotels are all looking for something new and interesting to give them a competitive edge. Guests think ‘Where should we stay? This is cool, we can visit their garden and their bee hives’ and the hotel can provide a bee suit [for safety]. It is not really expensive to set up a few hives and have a manager and if they can make [costs] back by having more visitors it is a creative thing to do.”
Hotels have warmed to the swarm of Apis mellifera.
Elder, of course, quickly discovered the added bonus of having on-site pollinators for the hotel garden’s zucchini, tomato and other vegetable crops that, until the bees’ arrival, would readily produce flowers but no fruit.
Then the buzz gained momentum among guests, he said.
“I have had some book clubs that come in and want to visit hives. We started getting guests coming up to see the hives,” he said. Eventually the hotel bees would take field trips to kindergarten and middle school – by ground transportation, of course – and underscore lessons about the importance of eating fresh food, leaving coloring books and word games behind as a reminder of those lessons.
“We also let the kids know that honey comes from bees, not a factory, not the little plastic bottle that is shaped like a bear. It is a really healthy item,” said Elder, the son of a Midwest veterinarian who believes his comfort level around the farm scene made this transition a natural for him. Perhaps his taste for beekeeping was born as he chewed all those honeycombs as a kid. But now, those honeycombs find their way into the hotel’s cheese displays – while the honey finds its way into desserts, beverages and the hotel’s signature applewood smoked bacon jam.
Beekeeper John Russo, owner for the past seven years of Carmel Lavender farm, brought four hives to the nearby Carmel Valley Ranch in California in 2010 to help the resort put its back-to-the-land philosophy into a more creative kind of action.
“The owners had a concept for adventure, they were trying to foster a little bit of childhood sense of wonder around nature, too, and thought the bees would help do that,” he said. While running the bee programs at the ranch, Russo continues to operate his nearby farm, where he harvests honey along with essential oils from the lavender.
At the ranch, when he’s not tending bees he’s engaging guests in the beekeeping life with on-property programs the ranch actively markets. While the honey gets sent to the kitchen for the chef’s use in recipes, Russo is cooking up an authentic experience for ranch visitors. There are now 12 colonies – and more than 250,000 bees – about 50 feet from the organic garden and that makes for entertainment as well as a good education.
“Guests can become beekeepers for a day,” he said. “I lead them on a 90-minute adventure that starts in the lavender field where we observe the bees, and then I take them up into the apiary and explain how bees live and act and what they are doing. We get them into bee suits and they participate in my beekeeping activities: We do hive inspections, check for general health and population growth in the hives, and I will even have them along doing a re-queening operation.” The education benefits are big, he said, because people have long since learned that honeybees aren’t yellowjackets or wasps “and I have to tell people that these guys won’t come after your barbecue. So much of this is education. …This is a whole world living parallel to you, a matriarchal society.”
He is careful about risk-management, too. Stings are the flip side of beekeeping and the hotel makes a waiver form available for guests.
Bees are also a marketer’s delight. Like Carmel Valley and other locales, the Fairmont San Francisco includes the colonies as one of its attractions. In fact, it marks June 17 as the hotel’s “anniversa-BEE,” celebrating the June 17, 2010 installation on the penthouse, said public relations director Melissa Farrar.
Upon his arrival some two years ago, executive chef JW Foster envisioned a garden, four stories above Powell Street, and got general manager Thomas Klein on board with the idea. The hotel partnered with Marshall’s Farm, a honey farm in Marin County, which brought four hives and 50,000 bees, and provided Spencer Marshall as the on-site beekeeper. The Fairmont has since sweetened the pot with events for the public: A honey event with the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, demonstrations by Foster on how to use honey in recipes, such as his plum bruschetta, and a festive launch of its own branded beer, Honey Saison, created in partnership with a local brewer, Almanac Beer Company.
There’s even been a sweet rivalry between Foster and pastry chef, Stephen Sullivan, said Farrar. Foster has challenged Sullivan to create desserts substituting honey for sugar. “And that’s not easy,” she said.
And while guests do not enter the on-site apiary, she said, “we do on a regular basis have guests go out to see it. In the garden, if you are not in their flight path, you can check on the herbs and see them. They don’t bother you.” No guest has ever been stung, she said – and they’d like to keep it that way.
“It’s all very calming and peaceful,” she said. “You can hear cable cars going by, and you are in the middle of the city, but being up there is a calming, Zen-like experience.”
Of course, there have been some other visitors – ones who, like the bees, haven’t booked rooms – but who do make their way to the penthouse area, and feed on the same water being used by the bees. These are the local hummingbirds.
And while the Fairmont does offer promotional packages and items tied to the presence of the bees, they haven’t yet worked out what to do about these other fly-in guests.
“Looks like we do have the birds and the bees,” said Farrar. Stay tuned: Oh, the possibilities.