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Rooftop Bees Give Restaurant Hyperlocal Flavor

Ian Bens and Aron Weber tend more than 100,000 Italian honeybees living on the roof of the Fairmont hotel in Washington, D.C.
Kate Davidson/NPR
Ian Bens and Aron Weber tend more than 100,000 Italian honeybees living on the roof of the Fairmont hotel in Washington, D.C.

Ancient Egyptians were the first known beekeepers, sometimes floating their hives up and down the Nile to pollinate crops along the river. Now, in Washington, D.C., two chefs are among the newest beekeepers in this long line of apiarists.

At the Fairmont Washington, a downtown hotel, Executive Sous-Chef Ian Bens and Executive Pastry Chef Aron Weber tend to more than 100,000 Italian honeybees living on the roof.

That makes the Fairmont a rarity among hotels — a place where honeybees outnumber humans.

The bees are new residents, and so far only Bens and Weber have tasted their honey. They'll wait to harvest it until the bees have stored enough to last the hotel through the winter, about 60 to 100 pounds. But the honey they have tried, Weber says, has a floral taste. And as a chef, he loves knowing exactly where it comes from.

"Most chefs like to use as local a product as they can," Weber tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Guy Raz. "I think with this idea, it gives us the ultimate local product to be able to use in our kitchens."

Standing on the Fairmont's roof in his chef's jacket and bee veil, Weber describes some of the desserts he might make with their rooftop harvest — desserts that deliver a direct hit of honey, like "honey caviar," or desserts that allow the honey's "D.C. flavor" to shine through.

The honeybees travel up to three miles away to forage for nectar. There are no plants on the roof, just a noisy fan and the blare of sirens, but Rock Creek Park is nearby. Bens says there's an environmental reason for the project, as well as a culinary one.

"There's something called colony collapse disorder," he says, "and it's really lowered the number of feral bees in all of North America, especially in the States. And this really does help with helping to pollinate the local plants, the local flowers."

Plus, he says, life in the kitchen can get pretty tense.

"In the afternoon, around 4 o'clock, it feels great to come up here on the roof and visit all of our ladies and just get away from it for 10 to 15 minutes."

At the end of the day, the bees return to their hives, three orange rooftop boxes. Downstairs, the Fairmont's cooks prepare for the dinner rush.

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