There Are Literally Thousands of Bees in Copley Square

But don’t panic—they’re checked in at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.

copley plaza bee hotel

Photo provided by the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel

Hovering a few dozen feet above Copley Square, thousands of bees are hard at work. On the second-level balcony of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, they buzz back and forth between flowers, herbs, and their hives, while newcomer bees kick back in a recently installed “bee hotel.”

Since 2012, the Copley Plaza has housed 130,000 honey bees in three hives on their balcony. Last month, a new population of bees called wild mason bees was introduced to the Copley Square apiary, where they dwell in this bee hotel.

The addition of the tiny hotel—a bee habitat designed to resemble a mini Fairmont Copley Plaza—is meant to support the reproduction of wild mason bees, whose pollination skills power urban food production. Ten bee hotels have been installed in Fairmont hotels across the country with help from Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting pollinators and their ecosystems.

On a particularly sweltering August afternoon, I visited the Copley Plaza to find out what a bee hotel actually looks like. As Suzanne Wenz, Fairmont’s regional director of communications, opened the door to the balcony, we were hit with a wave of hot, steamy air. There, an urban oasis unfolded in front of us—there was a small garden with flowers and herbs, a few small tables and chairs, and the apiary.

The bee hotel, a wooden, rustic-looking construction humming with activity, was our first stop. The mini Copley Plaza was designed by the hotel’s engineering and food and beverage teams in consultation with Pollinator Partnership. By using wood foraged from Franklin Park by the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, the teams created a locally sourced habitat smack dab in the middle of bustling Back Bay.

“We love it,” said Wenz. “It’s the ultimate hive-to-table scenario.”

She pointed to the other hives next to the new habitat.

“These are Italian honeybees,” she said as I tried to quell my nervous thoughts about the dozens of bees buzzing around me.

The honeybees’ job is to produce the sweet nectar that’s used at the hotel’s Oak Long Bar + Kitchen. Mason bees, on the other hand, occupy the bee hotel. Instead of making honey and living in hives, mason bees live in a more spread out structure, and only work to pollinate.

Wenz then showed me a mint plant, explaining all of the flowers and herbs in the garden were local and selected specially for the bees. Sometimes, she said, traces of mint are detectable in the honey.

As I grabbed my dangling DSLR camera to take a photo, my earlier nervous thoughts became real fears. That’s when the first bee flew into my head.

I swatted it, trying to act as nonchalant as possible. The bee swooped toward Wenz, then at me again. We retreated toward the opposite end of the rooftop, distancing ourselves from the bees.

She continued, explaining that pollinator bees are important for our food source. Her sentence was cut short when another bee darted at us. I felt it in my hair. My arms began to flail, flapping my now frizzy curls perhaps a little too violently. Then it happeneda needle-sharp pain on my forehead.

“It stung me!” I said, and we darted around a corner of the roof.

After some more swatting and pain-withstanding, I learned who was in charge of the bees. They’re managed by beekeeper Noah Wilson-Rich of Best Bees Company. On a normal (temperate) day, the bees don’t swarm hotel employees or curious journalists. They usually just pollinate on the roof of one of the most beautiful hotels in the citypeacefully.

“That is like what every journalist fears when they’re assigned a story on bees, right?” Wilson-Rich asks me when I tell him about my experience a few days later.

He explained there’s a pollen dearth during the month of August, meaning that pollen and nectar don’t flow as plentifully during the hottest part of the summer.

“It’s this period where the beehives’ populations have grown and they’ve got food stored. It’s kind of like if you had 20 school kids in the house, school’s out, there’s nothing to do, and it’s hot,” he says. “It’s just a weird time of the year and sometimes they can get a little feisty when it gets really hot.”

He emphasizes that my situation was highly unusual. Wenz, too, repeated that she’d been up to the balcony dozens of times without ever fearing a sting.

Still, a sting on the forehead is a small price to pay for a healthy ecosystem. Wilson-Rich, who founded Best Bees in 2010 by selling hives out of his South End apartment as a graduate student at Tufts, explains bees are hugely important in the city. Not only do they provide uniquely flavored honey, but they also enable the production of local fruits and vegetables. He says the city helps the bees just as much as bees help city dwellers.

“With my research, I’ve found that bees are actually doing better in cities,” he says.

He lays out three reasons why, based on data he’s collected over the past seven years:

  1. “They make more honey in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville than any place in Massachusetts,” says Wilson-Rich.
  2. Bees survive the winter at higher rates than outside of the city, further boosting their productivity.
  3. Beyond productivity and survival, Wilson-Rich says the biodiversity of bees is greater in cities, meaning that there are more bee species in cities than outside of them.

But what’s the point of having bees in the city if there are so many more flowers, fruits, and veggies to pollinate elsewhere?

“This is all very counterintuitive, right? You think about cities as like, cement,” says Wilson-Rich. “Regardless about the way we feel about our own cities, they’re actually really great hotspots for nature.”

Even if we don’t notice all of the bees around us, Wilson-Rich says they’re still doing their part to pollinate (and feed us). They’re pretty important to keep around, which is why Fairmont set out to become an industry leader in honeybee health. The company has worked to improve the overall health and conservation of bee species not just in Boston, but around the world. Fairmont has built 40 apiaries and bee hotels in its properties across the globe over the past decade. And they help to combat habitat loss, which is a leading cause for the decline in wild bee populations.

Expanding our focus to wild mason bees and their need for habitat is a natural evolution of our bee programming,” said Jane Mackie, vice president of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, in a statement.

Wilson-Rich encourages Bostonians to get involved in urban beekeeping. (And I wholeheartedly encourage Bostonians not to be afraid of bees.) Bee Sanctuary is Wilson-Rich’s new nonprofit, where he plans to help communities in need of pollinators by connecting them with corporate-sponsored hives. Or, if you’re feeling crafty, Fairmont put together instructions for a DIY Bee Hotel, and Pollinator Partnership has handy tips on how to plant a window box for pollinators.

“You know bees are cool, but it’s not just for hipsters in Brooklyn and for yuppies in the South End,” says Wilson-Rich. “It’s so much more than just a trend or a fad.”