As the sun warms the rooftop of the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, the bees begin to forage in earnest. “They’re getting active now,” says beekeeper Ed Moore, putting on his bee suit. By mid-morning, the five rooftop hives are buzzing, and Moore, along with general manager Nick Moschetti, begin to harvest honey for use in the hotel’s kitchen and spa.
The honey harvest, meant to highlight the 128-year-old hotel’s commitment to sustainability and environmental protection, draws attention to the interconnected nature of people, the food they eat and the little pollinators who make it possible, according to the beekeeper. Though the goal is to use the honey in retail and food items, the bigger picture remains the more important message.
“The more honey bees we can keep thriving, the more pollination we have occurring, which encourages plant growth overall,” says Moschetti. The Brown Palace began maintaining beehives in 2010 as part of Denver’s green initiative, but Moschetti still finds the bees to be remarkable. “Even on the rooftop of a ten-story building in the middle of downtown Denver, our five bee colonies are able to find flowers to pollinate around downtown and thrive year after year.”
And Moschetti isn’t the only one intrigued by the nature of bees. Chris Starkus, former executive chef at Urban Farmer, made a name for himself as a beekeeping chef, but he never anticipated beekeeping becoming such a passion. He says it was a matter of one question leading to another. “Normally chefs don’t have the time,” he adds.
Still, Starkus found the time to set up three hives on the roof of the Oxford Hotel (where Urban Farmer is located) in 2017, and he used the honey on charcuterie plates, in desserts and as a conduit for bee advocacy. Urban Farmer, which specializes in farm-to-table dinners, could seat 250 people an evening (before COVID-19), and Starkus saw the food as a way to tangibly teach customers that one-third of the food on every plate is the result of pollination.
“Pollinating, at the end of the day, is taking what is existing in a certain plant or a certain life form and spreading it around to new forms of life, creating more life,” explains executive sous chef Ryan Rau, who took over caring for the hives when Starkus left in 2019.
Honey bees travel up to three miles from the hive to find pollen. And on the way back, they pollinate other plants they come across, whether in flowerbeds, fields or urban vegetable gardens — “all of those things that are potentially going to end up on your plate,” Rau continues.
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However, honey bees are dying. And that’s part of the reason that both Urban Farmer and the Brown Palace tend to hives. Moschetti says the fact that “the bee population continues to be challenged each year,” is part of the inspiration for his hive maintenance. Bees suffer from colony-collapse disorder, varroa mites, pesticides, habitat loss and extreme weather caused by climate change.
But pollinators are also important in mitigating the effects of climate change, because they are the ones who continue to help gardens grow. Rau makes this point while explaining his plans to expand Urban Farmer’s beekeeping initiative. This past year he increased the restaurant's hives from one to three, and next year he hopes to have five. He also plans to start building a garden full of pollinator-friendly wildflowers on the roof of the restaurant.
Rau says that eventually Urban Farmer will be able to host dinners on the roof that showcase the bees, the hives and the garden. “I hope [the rooftop garden] can excite people as much as it excites me,” he says. Because it “also opens the door to educate” customers about the importance of bees, and what they can do to help.
And that’s something that Starkus, who's now starting his own bee company — Waggle, in Colorado Springs, specializing in bee pollen bitters — reiterated: the importance of people taking the initiative to plant pollinator-friendly gardens and “to support their local beekeeper like they support their local farmer. As there’s been the rise of farm-to-table, I don’t think bees have gotten the attention that farmers and animals have.”