Creating quite a buzz at hotel

Honeybees at home on rooftop apiary

By Genevieve Rajewski
Globe Correspondent / September 22, 2010

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With its 21 stories and cold blue glass exterior, the InterContinental Boston hotel hardly appears primed for agriculture. But the fifth-floor roof deck is buzzing with thousands of workers toiling at food production. There, masked by potted palms and mums, stands Boston’s first hotel rooftop apiary: a cabinet that’s home to a colony of honeybees.

The hotel worked with Zainal Khan, a bee specialist, to install the apiary in early summer. The endeavor is fitting given the hotel’s restaurant, Miel, which means honey in French.

Up on the roof deck, there is a dark swirl at its edge that looks like a dust cloud. Closer inspection reveals it to be hundreds, probably thousands, of honeybees returning from foraging through downtown Boston for pollen.

Cyrille Couet, Miel’s sous chef, volunteered to manage the apiary. “Chefs don’t have much free time to learn something completely new, so I was happy to get involved,’’ says Couet, his arm draped over the apiary. “What I’ve learned is just how amazing bees are. They have a great work ethic and take care of themselves.’’

To start the colony, Couet fed the bees sugar water to give them the energy needed to fend for themselves. He also had to locate and monitor the slightly larger queen bee, crossing his fingers that her reign would flourish. “It’s the end of the hive if the queen isn’t accepted,’’ he explains. “Thankfully, the other bees took to her right away.’’

The bees enjoy a panoramic view of Fort Point Channel, including the Boston Children’s Museum’s iconic Hood milk bottle, and the seaport beyond. More important from the bees’ perspective, below lies the hotel’s floral and herb gardens and the 21-acre Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. On the Greenway, just in front of the hotel, downtown workers relax over lunches and books, while honeybees dart from blossom to blossom among the organically maintained roses and phlox.

“Bees aren’t carrying pollen in little Ziploc bags,’’ says Thomas Smarr, superintendent of horticulture for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. “It is on their bodies, and they lose some all along the way. Just one grain on a pistil is all it takes to keep a plant flowering and fruiting, so bees are performing an amazing service to the Greenway.’’

Bees regularly travel up to five miles for pollen, and they return to the roof deck with their rear legs coated. Depending on the type of flower visited, this bounty sometimes resembles Cheeto-colored leg warmers. A roof-deck camera provides a live feed to Miel’s dining room, where patrons can watch the activity on a large flat-screen monitor.

The colony has grown from 10,000 to more than 40,000 honeybees of a fairly docile, Italian variety. Soon Khan will show Couet how to harvest the results of the bees’ labor, expected to be about 40 pounds of honey.

The motivation behind the hotel’s foray into urban beekeeping is the mysterious phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, in which a hive or colony’s worker bees abruptly disappear. The United States has lost more than 50 percent of its managed honeybee colonies over the past 10 years.

Although honey production remains a secondary focus, the hotel’s honey eventually will be sold alongside other artisanal honeys available in Miel and included in honey tastings.

Couet will don proper beekeeping gear when he harvests the honey. But today he’s in a chef’s jacket with the sleeves rolled up as he pulls out and inspects each honey tray coated with bees. “I have the gear downstairs and wore it a few times,’’ says Couet. “But then you get more brave. When [Khan] first brought the bees, they were in a little box, and he had to smash it against the ground to get them out. It was nerve-racking. They were everywhere. I was stung on my ear.’’

The chef shrugs this off as a rite of passage.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at