Catching a Buzz

Are beehives the new rooftop gardens? Donna Garlough gets up close and personal with the latest locavore obsession.

catching a buzz

Illustration by Kirsten Ulve

I am in the ladies’ room at the InterContinental Hotel, zipping myself into what looks like a hazmat suit, when the panic sets in. I swear I can hear a faint buzzing coming from the air-conditioning vent above the toilet. I swallow hard and pull on my screened hat.

I’m here to shadow Cyrille Couet, the sous-chef at Miel, and his beekeeping mentor, Zainal Khan, as they check in on the 120,000 humming inhabitants of the hotel’s rooftop apiary — which provides an ample supply of honey to Miel and to the hotel spa for “apitherapy” treatments like body wraps and hydrating foot masks. The year-old operation is part of a growing movement in the city: An apiary just opened at the Seaport Hotel; Prezza chef Anthony Caturano has been toying with a personal hive; the Boston Center for Adult Education recently held an “Urban Beekeeping” class; and restaurants like the Fireplace and Cambridge Brewing Company have featured Mike Graney’s Jamaica Plain honey. Beehives, it seems, are the new in-house herb gardens.

And now, I’m keen to get a close-up view. Problem is, I’m terrified of bees. I’ve managed to get through the past 30-odd years without getting stung, and I have no clue what would happen if I did.

The beekeeping suit I purchased online looks secure enough, but a day before meeting the bees, I e-mailed my doctor — just in case. “I’ll call in a prescription for an EpiPen,” he wrote back. “But keep in mind it should only be used for a life-threatening reaction, such as the throat closing up.” I picked up the prescription and practiced the motion of jabbing the needle into my thigh.

Now, as I lumber onto the roof toward the square wooden beehives, Khan is wielding a smoking metal drum; the smoke, he tells me, calms the bees. He’s wearing a baseball cap and shades…and no protective gear. He talks me through the process as he and Couet pull out tray after buzzing tray dripping with honey. But this is what I hear: ZZZZZT. ZZZZZT. ZZZZZT.

“Let’s see if we can find the queen,” Couet says. He commences removing trays until we locate her: a mammoth, overfed bee surrounded by quivering drones. I’m not sure what to say. “Wow,” I muster. Get me out of here, I want to scream.

Couet scrapes a tablespoon of honey onto a metal tool and hands it to me. “You can taste it,” he says. They want me to unzip my veil. “It’s so pretty!” I say, stalling as I back away.

Once at a safe distance, I dip a finger into the warm amber liquid and take a tiny taste.


On my way out, I grab a menu for the spa and mull over those luxe honey treatments. Now that’s something to test, especially since I can leave my EpiPen at home.