The recent disappearance of vast numbers of worker bees from their colonies sounded an unexpectedly resonant ecological alarm. It quickly became clear—to beekeepers, scientists, and the average honey-eating consumer alike—that a decline of bee populations would lead not only to higher price tags on our beloved natural sweetener but also potentially to the disastrous malfunctioning of entire ecosystems. Campaigns were launched, blockbuster movies were made, and educational curricula were developed, all with the goal of raising awareness about the plight of a tiny creature we’d long thought of only for its ability to produce exquisite honey and inflict equally exquisite pain.
Outside of the movie theaters and the classrooms, more industrious souls began working on behalf of the worker bee by learning the secrets of apiculture. While beekeeping has been practiced since antiquity, the effects of the modern Colony Collapse Disorder awakened a fresh interest in tending hives as both a hobby and a business opportunity. These small, distributed operations spread into city backyards and even onto rooftops in neighborhoods too dense for lawns. Honey has become a shining star of the local-food movement, promising special immune-boosting and allergy-fighting properties for people who consume the sweet stock of their region.
Fourteen floors above the street, on the top of Toronto’s historic Fairmont Royal York hotel, three beehives were installed in the summer of 2008 to produce honey for the hotel’s restaurant. A veteran of the local-food movement, the Royal York has kept gardens on its roof for 12 years, cultivating dozens of herb varieties, vegetables, berries, and edible flowers to infuse a largely organic menu. Executive chef David Garcelon says adding hives was a natural extension of the hotel’s homegrown tradition. “The chef’s apprentices maintain the gardens,” he says, “and they began to notice a remarkable variety of insect life around the plantings. We put three hives in and produced 380 pounds of honey in the first season.”
With training and collaboration from the Toronto Beekeepers Cooperative, the Royal York’s culinary apprentices have honed the necessary skills to protect and collect from their micro-apiary. With three more hives added this year, they hope to be able to produce 700 pounds of honey annually—more than two-thirds of the restaurant’s 1,000-pound annual demand. “Our motivation for keeping
bees is part of our environmental mission,” says Garcelon, “but it’s also great education for the apprentices and the best way to get great products into our restaurants.” Beyond educating the staff, the hotel offers tours of the rooftop for guests during its afternoon tea service.
Sensitive tasters might even be able to guess which flowering corner of Toronto provided pollen for the Royal York bees.