Sunday 16 December 2018

The top Irish hotels and businesses keeping their own bees on their roofs

There’s a huge buzz around beekeeping at the moment, with sustainably minded businesses around the country sponsoring hives and top hotels even keeping their own bees, writes Katy McGuinness

Chef Aishling Moore of Elbow Room and Mark Riordan of Hive Mind. Photo: Diane Cusack
Chef Aishling Moore of Elbow Room and Mark Riordan of Hive Mind. Photo: Diane Cusack
Peter Murphy beekeeper, with beehives on roof of the Merrion Hotel, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Chef Aishling Moore of Elbow Room and Mark Riordan of Hive Mind. Photo: Diane Cusack

In Myrtleville, Co Cork, Mark Riordan has come up with a novel way of operating the beehives that he keeps on his family farm. His background is in tech, but as part of a master’s degree in organic horticulture at UCC, he wrote a thesis on commercial beekeeping and genetics, and became hooked.

“I had been keeping bees myself for five years and worked with a bee breeder helping to breed queen bees,” he says. “After I completed the thesis, I had surplus bees. I’d been involved in community-supported agriculture projects such as the allotments in Myrtleville, and I wanted to apply the same principles to the bee realm.”

And so Hive Mind — “We keep the hives, you keep the honey” — was born.

Mark set about getting his hives sponsored by different companies and individuals. In exchange for an annual fee — currently around €300 per hive, and customers can sign up for one-third of a hive — he manages the hive and, at harvest time, the sponsor gets the honey. The price works out at about €7.50 per jar. Currently, Mark has around 50 hives and, after a few bad winters, is focused on increasing this number. The good summer will help the process, and yields are likely to be high this year.

“Many of my corporate customers have got involved in sponsoring hives through their CSR programmes; I had corporate greening in mind when I started out. One of our biggest corporate customers is Airbnb; the company uses the honey in its canteens.”

Late last year, Aishling Moore, a chef at Elbow Lane in Cork, part of the Market Lane Group, spotted an Instagram post from Hive Mind and was intrigued.

“I thought that it sounded so cool,” she says. “I pitched the idea to Stephen Kehoe, who is our executive chef and the proprietor of Orso [another restaurant in the group]. He thought it was a great idea; Conrad [Howard, one of the owners] agreed and told me to get on with it! I got in touch with Mark and we met in January and agreed to sponsor three hives. Each one will give us around 15kg of honey. It’s not enough for all the requirements of the restaurants, so we’ll use it more as a component than an ingredient. We collected the first batch a few weeks ago. Each hive feeds from different meadows and they have distinct flavours — one is fennel; another tastes of blackberries. They are amazing.

“As a group, we are very big on sustainability and waste. We are very conscious of anything we throw out. Mark explained that it takes in the region of 12,000 flower trips to produce one teaspoon of honey. It puts it into perspective the way we want to use it. I’m working on developing other dishes and so are the chefs in the other restaurants.”

“Elbow Lane is ahead of the curve,” says Mark. “The cost of the honey works out at about €7.50 per jar. The honey is barely filtered, and we don’t heat it so it’s set rather than runny. Heating ruins the enzymatic nature of the honey. As it passes through the bee’s gut, the nectar picks up enzymes that are beneficial for human gut health. A foraging bee collects nectar, brings it back to the hive in its honey stomach and regurgitates it to another bee, which takes it into its own body before regurgitating it into a strategic position in the hive. As the water content is reduced, the honey is capped and will keep forever.”

Anyone interested in sponsoring a hive can fill out an expression-of-interest form on Hive Mind’s website, hivemind.ie; Mark expects to be in a position to take on additional sponsors later this year.

On the roof of The Merrion Hotel in Dublin, Peter Murphy, who is in charge of sustainability and all things green (as well as facilities and security), looks after three hives, which the hotel installed last September.

“I went on a beekeeping course,” says Peter, “and then I start experimenting at home in Co Meath. “I wasn’t very successful for the first couple of years; the colony disappeared and I had to start again. Then a swarm came and found the hive and moved in. I brought in some of the honey to Ed [Cooney, the hotel’s executive chef]. It has a distinctive flavour because the bees feed on an area of yellow furze. Last year we brought in some of the bees from Meath to the hotel. Now two of the hives are doing well, and honey is starting to appear.”

“I’ve been keen ever since I heard a speech from Trevor Sargent,” says Ed, “when he was minister, at a Good Food Ireland event. He said that most hotels in Canada had beehives on their roofs and it got me interested.”

“My concern was whether you could actually keep bees on a hotel roof,” says Peter McCann, the manager of the hotel. “You couldn’t risk them flying into the hotel rooms and stinging the guests. But they have no interest in being inside; they are too busy. They travel a phenomenal distance each day: the scouts go out looking for good crops and then come back to the hive and tell the others where they will spend the day. They come in on a flight path: it’s like watching planes landing. I find it completely fascinating. If the bee population diminished sufficiently, we would be in serious trouble; they are the base of the entire ecosystem. So the principal motivation for having them is sustainability. I think we have a responsibility to do what we can. The culinary aspect is a bonus. We’re aiming to have sufficient honey to influence a couple of dishes, but there won’t be enough from three hives to fulfil the requirements of a hotel this size.”

“Provenance is very important to us,” adds Ed. “One of the delightful parts of my job is dealing with the suppliers, producers and farmers, and having our own bees is another part of that. I’d like to be able to use it in our Merrion Pantry line as gifts for guests, and in a couple of dishes.”

At Cyprus Avenue, a small owner-operator restaurant in East Belfast, chef Richard McCracken, who previously worked with Tom Kitchin, Andrew Fairlie and Hélène Darroze in Paris, also has bees on his roof.

“About six months ago I stumbled across a social enterprise called Infinity Farm, who were growing herbs and looking after bees in strange locations around the city. I contacted them and arranged to meet them at a derelict Ulster Bank building that has since become a refuge for artists in East Belfast. I was blown away by the set-up: there were artists using the old vaults as studios, and there was a real buzz [!] about the place, with three hives on the roof.

“The honey produced from the hives was fantastic, and the guys from Infinity Farm spoke with real passion and pride about their urban honey. Our relationship grew and, a couple of months ago, we split one of their hives so that we now have bees on the flat roof of the kitchen among the herbs and flowers that we grow for the restaurant. We named the queen ‘Gloria’ — a reference to the famous Van Morrison song — and we recently added an additional super [the honey-collecting part of the hive], as the bees are thriving in their new home. We are hoping to perform our first extraction in the next couple of weeks. In return for half of the honey, my staff will be fully trained in beekeeping and those who are happier watching on from a distance also learn, so it provides a source of interest and helps with retention of staff in a time of a hospitality crisis in Ireland.

“For me, it has been a real example of how the social enterprises and small businesses can work together. From our flat roof in East Belfast, Stormont is visible and, with the stalemate up there, it’s so refreshing that a social enterprise and a small business can work together for the better.”

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