A Refuge in the Sky

Since 2006, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder has been causing the Western honeybee population to decrease by 30% each year — and in the past year, many U.S. beekeepers lost 40-50% of their hives.
 
These startling stats have provoked the European Commission, just this May, to call for a two year ban on a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, citing them as the leading cause of colony collapse. Soon afterward, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency released a report blaming Colony Collapse Disorder on a combination of factors — including a parasitic mite, poor nutrition, and genetics (while pesticides like neonicotinoids are still used freely in the US).
 
It’s also interesting to note that the inability for bees to cope with pesticides could very well be linked to what we feed them — as a recent (June) study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated commercial beekeepers’ use of corn syrup and refined sugar to feed their hives (instead of honey) as a contributing factor.
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“Einstein said that four years after the bees are extinct, humans will follow”

Though scientists cannot agree on the root cause of the problem, they do concede that we must take better care of existing hives. In 2012, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance mandating all feral bees be relocated rather than exterminated.
 
Central Texas Bee Rescue is one local non-profit dedicated to no-kill bee hive removal. Leader of CTBR and self-proclaimed “bee czar” Walter Schumacher recalls how he first became involved in bee rescue, “A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to save the world. I thought he was kidding at the time, and then I started hanging out with the bees and saw that it was actually a pretty true statement.”
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“We need to observe everything smaller than us to survive and understand how everything works.”

Arguably the most beneficial insect known to man, bees are responsible for pollinating flowers, plants, and trees, including at least one-third of the world’s produce. According to National Geographic, bees contribute more than $15 billion to U.S. crop production. “Einstein said that four years after the bees are extinct, humans will follow,” says Schumacher. “We’ll have no food.”

So what can we do to save the lessening bee population?
 
What are we doing here in Austin about it?

Besides being an asset to our global food system, bees have much to teach us about the natural world. “They require us to look at everything small,” says Tina Lee, co-owner of Central Texas Bee Rescue. “We need to observe everything smaller than us to survive and understand how everything works.”
 
Brandon Fehrenkamp, owner of Eastside Honey Co, another local bee rescue organization, has been keeping feral bees for ten years. “A lot of people are concerned with the survival of the bees, but it’s our quality of life that’s at stake too,” he points out. “The biggest task our generation is faced with is fixing our agriculture system. That weight is on our shoulders and beekeeping will play an integral role in that…it’s a good way for people to start to get back in touch with their food systems. It’s very important for our survival.” So what can we do to save the lessening bee population? What are we doing here in Austin about it?
 
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“The biggest task our generation is faced with is fixing our agriculture system…beekeeping will play an integral role in that”

Round Rock Honey wants to encourage residents to maintain their own hives. They offer year-round beekeeping classes, where participants start with a classroom lesson before suiting up and going out to the field to observe a hive in action.
 
“We want 10,000 people to have one hive, not one person having 10,000 hives. And that’s really why we started these classes,” explains Round Rock Honey manager and beekeeper Liona Downs. “And Austin’s a really good beekeeping city,” she adds, “because they actually allow you to have bees in the city.”
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Just this spring, Austin’s W Hotel launched our city’s first downtown apiary with the help of Central Texas Bee Rescue. Ten bee boxes now reside on the 37th floor of the Stratus Properties high rise and thirty more live near Barton Creek. They rotate through all forty so none of the bees are being “sweatshopped” or forced to produce honey. According to Schumacher, the 50,000 to 100,000 bees in each box should produce a minimum of 4,000 pounds of honey a year.
 
The rooftop apiary is the latest sustainability initiative by Block 21, which has already received a four star rating from Austin Energy for efficient water and energy use, and takes pride in composting and recycling 70% of its waste.

Using local and seasonal plants and flowers has always been a priority for Trace. Right now, there are 15 buckets of organic herbs and flowering plants providing shade and a source of pollen for the bees, as well as roof-to-table ingredients for the kitchen of Trace. Currently, ghost peppers, tomatoes, thyme, sage, basil, citrus trees, and olives are some of the edible plants surrounding the bee’s homes, and they plan on adding 110 more buckets to the bee yard.
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“It’s really rewarding to know that we are able to provide a home for bees that were rescued rather than exterminated”

“It’s really rewarding to know that we are able to provide a home for bees that were rescued rather than exterminated,” says Valerie Broussard, who had hoped for a rooftop apiary since she became the first person to hold the title of “forager” at a W Hotel. “It’s perfectly in line with our other sustainability efforts. And from a culinary perspective, honey adds so much depth of flavor to dishes.”
 
“Eventually, as we get better on this roof, I can individually feed these beehives a certain mix,” Schumacher explains. “Like if the chef says that he wants a honey that tastes like pears, I can take pears and juice them basically and feed them directly…So then all their honey will have a pear flavor. If the chef says that he wants fig, we would do the same thing. We would macerate the figs into a liquid and we can individually feed.”

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“Our honey finishes like a flower.”

Right now, the bees live on a mix of fresh fruit juice rather than the refined sugar used by most commercial beekeepers. “Most bee producers feed their bees either corn syrup or sugar water,” says Schumacher. “Because of (sponsorship from) Whole Foods, we’re (able) to get their cold fruit and macerate it into a fruit solution. That’s what we feed them– basically a really groovy bee smoothie. The honey that you have in a store, because its bees are fed sugar water or corn syrup, finishes right here at the bottom of your throat–sweet. Our honey finishes like a flower.”
 
Schumacher also says they’ll be adding shade cloth and misters to the roof in the future. “So they’ll have their own little water park,” he laughs and jokingly adds, “Schlitterbahn’s going to fund that!” Looks like the residents inside the W aren’t the only ones living the good life.
 
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On June 13th, the W threw a black and yellow affair to celebrate the first harvest with samples of food and cocktails using the uber-local honey. Schumacher debuted a 33-foot Airstream made from reclaimed and recycled materials provided by the Treehouse. This trailer will serve as a mobile honey wagon for Central Texas Bee Rescue to spin fresh honey (using a machine that centrifugally spins the honey-comb to extract the honey without destroying the wax).
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Guests of the W Hotel can now expect to see honey used in spa treatments and jars available for purchase in their rooms. The viscous gold can currently be found in Executive Pastry Chef Janina O’Leary’s signature ice creams and Meyer lemon budino (strawberry merengue, toasted marshmallow, champagne sorbet), and in select charcuterie items crafted by Chef de Cuisine, Lawrence Kocurek, such as house-cured bacon, onion jam, and mostarda.
 
Is the rooftop of the W Hotel the first of many urban apiaries to come? Perhaps other local businesses will follow suit and realize the many benefits to keeping bees on a small-scale. And while honey is certainly a sweet byproduct, Fehrenkamp of Eastside Honey Co reminds us that there is so much more to beekeeping.

Is the rooftop of the W Hotel the first of many urban apiaries to come?

“One of the things I appreciate most about honeybees is that it’s like having Mother Nature’s grandfather clock in your backyard,” he says. “You get very in tune to the changing of the seasons and the environment and your own natural surroundings once you have a hive in your backyard. You pick up on the natural cycles, the natural rhythms of things. And that, to me, is so cool. Getting that window into nature…that’s not something everyone else gets. It’s really a blessing, in my opinion.”


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Photography: Chris Perez and Veronica Meewes

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