The economics of beekeeping for restaurants is straightforward and simple. There are costs, yes, but the rewards? Priceless. And the bragging rights are off the charts.
Here’s the latest buzz on some restaurants that are sweet on their apiaries and honey bees, with solid tips for the best practices for beekeeping, as well as financial insights into producing honey from on-site rooftops and gardens.
Urban Farmer Restaurant, Denver, Colorado
Chris Starkus is executive chef at Urban Farmer, a modern farm-to-table steakhouse that just opened in Denver late last summer. Chef Starkus is so passionate about beekeeping that he is even enrolled in Oregon State University’s Master Beekeeper program.
The restaurant uses the honey and pollen they collect in several menu items, including the chia seed parfait, foie gras dishes, avocado toast, and as an accompaniment to cheese cart selections. “On the beverage end, tinctures are made from the propolis, and honey and pollen are used in some of our cocktails — the Beekeeper’s Knees and the Urban Forager,” says Starkus. He notes that he also uses the beeswax to make lip balm, candles, and board conditioner.
“It is not a short-term investment, but a long-term one that ensures our food continues to be pollinated to sustain the business we are in,” says Starkus.
“It is best to start with two hives as they do better this way, though one normally outperforms the other,” explains Starkus. “The cost of hives, bees, suit, smoker, hive tools, extractors, and management expenses would ballpark around $2,000 for the first year, but it eventually becomes cheaper the longer you have them. This would be a rough start-up cost.”
To begin, you would need to order the hives and all of the equipment, says Starkus. “Bees are ordered in January-February and are picked up in spring (March-April), depending on your location. Set up in the desired location prior to bee pick-up and transfer to the new location when bees arrive.” And then what? “Manage from there,” he says. “The harvest normally occurs in September.”
Starkus has plans to make the hives even more accessible to customers. “I have an observation hive and plan to bring it into the restaurant for a real connection to the bees; people are mesmerized by them when they see them at work,” says Starkus. “All of my hives are foundation-less, which produces whole comb on the frame and we will cut it tableside for our cheese service and other preparations.”
Starkus says he also plans to continue his master beekeeping pursuit “by enrolling into the journeyman level here in Denver and doing more outreach to get the message out about how important bees are to the Earth, and of course, our survival.”
Urban Farmer in Portland also has an on-site aviary.
The Café at Taj Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
The Taj Boston got into the beekeeping biz five years ago, thanks to Maureen Albright, the hotel’s director of engineering, who was on a mission to save the honeybees. The Taj started with one hive, and there are now 12 apiaries, located on the third and 17th floors of the hotel.
The bees fly up to 100 miles, but with Boston’s Public Garden across the street, they don’t have to travel far to pollinate plants and flowers, says Albright. The hotel also has a bee garden on the third floor. The secret to keeping the bees happy: “Mint in the garden,” says Albright. “And you can even taste the mint in the honey the bees produce.” Plans to expand the bee garden include additional bee-loving plants so they have a food source close by, such as basil and thyme.
The harvested honey is used in several of chef Gurminder Gidda’s dishes and cocktails at The Café at Taj Boston, including a pork belly and honey appetizer, cheesecake, honey butter, honey-infused Champagne cocktails, and a bourbon-honey cocktail.
“The production of honey on the rooftop of Taj Boston is more about a commitment to the environment than a financial benefit,” says Albright. “Our guests and the local community like knowing that our honey comes from the apiaries on the roof.” The harvested honey goes a long way, making the beekeeping efforts that much more cost effective, she adds. For example, the honey is used at afternoon tea and in cocktails at The Bar and in The Cafe. “We also bottle honey each season as gifts,” says Albright.
Annual costs run about $16,500 for the maintenance of the rooftop aviaries, including the care and management of the hives and the harvesting of the honey. “While the hives don’t produce enough honey to meet all our needs, this is a nice sustainability initiative and guests like knowing our honey is hyperlocal from our rooftop,” says Albright.
Taj uses Best Bees Company, a full-service beekeeping operation based in Boston to install and manage the beehives and to help keep the honey bee population healthy.Each spring, the hives are inspected to ensure they remained healthy through the winter. If any hives were lost to disease or mites, new queens are introduced and the broods are re-established, says Albright. “Our hives are inspected monthly to ensure stability and health and new towers are added as the hives thrive throughout the season. The honey is collected in April and September, generally.”
Fairmont, Washington, D.C., Georgetown
The Fairmont hotel chain has several properties that are home to beehives, but The Fairmont DC Georgetown was the first in the chain to embrace the Bee Sustainable program. There are four on-site rooftop hives, and the honey is used in the Juniper Restaurant and Lobby Bar, notably in the signature cocktail the BeeTini, created with vodka, fresh lemon juice, and rooftop honey that is garnished with a honeycomb. A honey-walnut bread is also made with the rooftop honey and served with warm butter drizzled with honey and sprinkled with black salt.
“Fairmont Washington, D.C. Georgetown has become well known for its rooftop honeybee hives,” says Diana Bulger, area director Fairmont public relations. “Guests enjoy our cocktails and menu items that are infused with our honey. They are featured in the restaurant, bar and courtyard and have become bestsellers.”
Next spring, the hotel plans to create lips balm, candles, tea, and sunscreen from the beeswax, making it even more cost-effective and financially attractive.
Beekeeping is relatively inexpensive, says Bulger. The bees and frames to house them are the initial investment at approximately $300-$500, she says. An extractor to harvest the honey costs about $200 and feeding the bees is free — they forage for food in the surrounding neighborhoods, feasting on magnolia trees, plants, and flowers.
The beekeepers check in on the queen and worker bees a couple of times during the week to make sure they are healthy and thriving. “By mid-summer, the bees have created enough honey for a harvest,” says Bulger. “Our beekeepers remove the frames from the box/hive and take them to the kitchen for harvesting.” Next, using a hot knife, the outer wax is removed from each frame. The frame is deposited into an extractor and spins until the honey comes off the frame, Bulger explains. The honey is then sifted through cloth (to make sure it is clear) and stored in containers for the culinary program.