Tender of the Hives: Michael King, Bee Butler at Vancouver’s Fairmont Waterfront
Michael King had been the manager of health, safety and security at the Fairmont Waterfront for more than 20 years when the bees arrived.
“I always liked bugs,” he told me as we stood on the roof of the hotel overlooking Vancouver’s busy waterfront. “As a little boy I raised caterpillars.” Once the Fairmont began to participate in a wider movement to protect habitat for bees, King became interested and involved in the health, safety and security of bees, as well as human guests. Eventually, “bee butler” was added to his title.
The Fairmont Waterfront was the first of the hotel chain to install beehives, followed quickly by the Fairmont in Ontario. Now twenty-two Fairmont hotels around the world have bee hotels, and 17 have hives on or near the property. This is part of a bigger movement to reverse colony collapse disorder, a worldwide phenomenon of missing honeybees which scientists worry could eventually lead to widespread agriculture disaster.
A bee hotel is a structure with lots of little nesting places for bees. The one on top of the Fairmont Waterfront is a wood frame with little cubbies of varying sizes for solitary bees to rest and nest. I never would have recognized it as a bee hotel. At first I thought it was some sort of environmental garden art.
The Fairmont Waterfront offers a complimentary daily bee tour at three pm. Since that’s the warmest time of day, guests see the most activity then. The tour lasts 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the number of questions people ask.
“We’re showcasing everything to do with gardens and what makes them healthy, and that’s really the insects,” King says. Tour participants will see the Fairmont’s rooftop garden, killer views of the harbor and the hotel’s four hives. From the outside, the hives look like stacks of white boxes. So the Fairmont’s bee team set up an observation hive with a door that opens on each side. Visitors can see the hive in action. Despite the fact that the hive has about a bazillion bees, King quickly picks out the queen, whose head has been marked with a little white dot.
“They’re doing the bee dance,” King says as we watch the little striped critters gyrate. The movements of their bodies – plus the small amount of nectar they regurgitate while dancing – communicate vital information to other bees, such as the distance and direction they traveled, and what they found when they got there. “If you rob a bee of sleep, it starts forgetting some of the critical things it needs to remember from its journey. Its memory fails. It’s pretty mind-blowing when you think of the world they live in.”
Tall and handsome, with close-cropped hair and a nice suit, Michael doesn’t look like your typical beekeeper. But he’s passionate about bees and very knowledgeable. He explains how bees transfer electrical charges to flowers, and how the charge is visible to other bees so they avoid wasting time on a bloom that’s already been pollinated. He muses about why bees are disappearing. “Are Wi-Fi and radio interfering with bees? Have we changed a secret world we didn’t know existed?”
The four Fairmont hives house eight to ten thousand resident bees in spring, and up to fifty thousand in summer. Michael and his bee team open the hives every ten days to check the health of the bees. If the hive is overpopulated, they stack another box on top to add another story to the hive.
Male bees live 90 days, while the hardworking females live only 28-35 days. “The world of the hive is all run by women,” King says. They do the nursing, constructing, cleaning and managing. The males are for mating. And if they don’t succeed in mating, they spend their three-month lifespan lounging around the hive.
The hotel added a water feature just outside the hives, since water is critical to hive life. Before that, the bees were using water from the pool, which alarmed hotel guests.
The bee movement is big in Vancouver. The Fairmont partners with Hives for Humanity, a nonprofit that teaches some of Vancouver’s underprivileged citizens to garden and tend hives A pollination corridor includes bee habitats in most of the city’s greenspaces. Even the Vancouver police department hosts four beehives.
The bee tour includes a chance to see what’s growing in the Fairmont’s garden. I was there in September, so there were still delicious San Marzano tomatoes, alpine strawberries, sorrel and lemon balm, but plants were starting to go to seed for winter. Hotel staff recently harvested and dried 30 pounds of garlic. The garden doesn’t yield enough for main courses, but the ingredients are used as garnishes. And the hive honey is incorporated into everything from cocktails to burnt honey ice cream. The hotel embraces sustainable practices, such as using coffee grounds as fertilizer and to keep pests away. Slugs and ants dislike the abrasiveness of coffee grounds.
The Fairmont wants to educate people about how everyone can help with the greater sustainability effort. King points out a vertical garden for small spaces that cleverly incorporates tomatoes on the bottom, worms in the middle, nasturtiums on top, and other easy-to-grow plants in between. He also encourages people to buy a little mason bee nest at the garden store and install it in a place with good morning sun.
The bee tour is open to hotel guests and to the general public.