Twelve floors up, on the roof of downtown Seattle’s Fairmont Olympic Hotel, are five beehives maintained by Gavin Stephenson, the hotel’s executive chef and beekeeper.
“A lot of the Fairmonts have apiaries. But a lot of their apiaries are managed by an outside partner. I’m the only chef/beekeeper in our company.”
Gavin says the Fairmont was the first place in the city to do rooftop beekeeping and the incentive was purely environmental.
“Doing the right thing. They’re very delicate. You know, the Colony Collapse Disorder and just bee health and pollination is so important to people that I kind of feel responsible. I have five hives here now. I’ve got seven or eight at home.”
If you haven’t heard, the world is experiencing a colony collapse crisis and, according to Greenpeace, the bees are mostly dying off because of pesticides and habitat loss. Without bees, there’s no pollination, and without pollination there can be no fruits, vegetables or grains.
“For every three bites of food you put in your mouth, the bees pollinate one of them. So if you just imagine the bees go away, 33% of your diet is going to go away. We have no way of artificially pollinating. Bees aren’t the only pollinators but they’re the biggest.”
Before setting up hives on the hotel roof, Gavin had never done any beekeeping. Everyday he learns something new, like the fact that he’s allergic to bees. He learned the hard way, of course, after his first sting.
“Later on that day I was having lunch and my throat started to swell and then my hand really swelled. I said, I better go up to my doctor. I found out that [I am], as we all are to some extent, allergic to bees.”
Since Gavin’s allergy doesn’t appear to be deadly, he still goes gloveless around the hives.
“I get stung anywhere between zero and three times a week, depending on the year. They get grouchy later on in the summer. They’re a little bit more aggressive. It’s something that you just get accustomed to.”
Despite the stings, Gavin loves bees and beekeeping and he shares a tip for anyone suffering from Spring pollen allergies.
“I was terrible with hay fever. I started working with the bees and eating honey every day. I mean raw honey that hasn’t been heated or filtered. I haven’t taken any allergy medication for five years now. It totally works. I thought it was a wives’ tale but it’s not.”
At the farmer’s market you’ll see clover honey and blackberry honey, but with urban bees it’s tough to get something so pure. Gavin says the bees travel up to six miles, dipping into all kinds of flowers and plants.
“You can’t control where they go. I tried to manipulate the flavor of my honey and you can’t because you’re in an urban setting, and that’s the beauty of it. So five hives right next to each other will have five different flavors. We’ve had honey that tasted like lemons before. We’ve had honey that tasted like chocolate.”
And you can taste the honey from Gavin’s rooftop bees if you dine in the hotel’s restaurants.
“I have what’s called a Rooftop Honey Bee breakfast. I do a parfait and then I do a honey foam on top of a tangerine juice and then we do a honey and cranberry muffin. For lunch I do an American Wagyu beef burger with honey-pepper bacon. It’s awesome. For dinner we have a duck dish we use bourbon and honey on. In Shuckers, our seafood restaurant, we’re doing a Copper River salmon skewer that’s dipped in honey and then smoked. It’s delicious.”
But Gavin’s favorite way to eat the honey, is fresh out the hive.
“When I’m about to extract, I’ll just run my finger across, and it’s still warm. It’s kind of the fruits of your labor.”