If you spot a pair of beekeepers in the elevator of the Radisson Blu Mall of America hotel, don't be alarmed. There's no infestation; it's just business as usual for this Bloomington, Minnesota, hotel and a growing number of properties around the globe.
Behind the bee veils at the Radisson Blu you'll find University of Minnesota Bee Squad program manager Bridget Mendel tending to hives on the rooftop and collecting data on the resident honeybees with other members of her team. The hotel belongs to the Bee Network, individual and corporate properties that partner with the Bee Squad to host on-site apiaries across the Twin Cities.
Radisson Blu's aim is not to collect honey - though it does so when honey is available, and infuses it into the food and drinks at the FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar and into skin-care products for in-room relaxation packages. The purpose of putting beehives atop the hotel is to support bee research and bring attention to a larger issue: the importance of pollinators and the threats they face.
"We're not just talking about honeybees," Mendel said. Other pollinators include butterflies, bats and birds, and "some of them are very much endangered."
The 20,000 species of bees globally are a critical link in the pollinator chain that affects us all. According to a 2016 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report, 75 percent of the world's food crops - including almonds, avocados, chocolate and coffee - are dependent on pollination, and one of every three bites we eat is thanks to the work of pollinators. Unfortunately, some species of bees are facing issues due to habitat loss, pesticides, disease and climate change.
"Bees are the 'canary in the coal mine,' " said chef Matt Sanchez, Marriott International's first licensed beekeeper, who manages more than 30 hives at Sawgrass Marriott in Florida. "They've always been stress beacons for us" humans, he said. For example, if pesticides are used within a three-mile radius of his hives, the bees may die, alerting him to something amiss in the area. "By keeping bees, you're more aware of and connected to everything in your community," he said.
As part of the travel and tourism sector - the second-fastest-growing sector in the world - hotels are uniquely positioned to spread the message and generate buzz about bees and pollinators.
"Every kind of person" walks through the doors of the Radisson Blu Mall of America, Mendel said. Although guests aren't permitted on the rooftop, Radisson and the Bee Squad occasionally bring a few resident bees to the lobby and bar to assist with on-site events that spark important conservation conversations with its global guests - such as "Honey Bee Helper" demonstrations to introduce guests to the honey-making process; and "Bee Happy Hour" featuring special rooftop honey-inspired menu items, with the Bee Squad on hand to answer questions. "They're able to reach a lot of people and provide education," Mendel said. "People start thinking about where their food comes from ... and suddenly (they're) looking at not only our agricultural food system but all of our natural ecosystems. And they're tied into it."
Court Whelan, director of sustainability and conservation travel for Natural Habitat Adventures, believes travelers are seeking opportunities to better understand and connect to our environment, a trend that is "only going to grow as the world becomes more fragile and imperiled." Furthermore, he added, "in a general sense, travel is the search for the authentic. What is more authentic than having beehives and sourcing your own local honey from the area?"
Local honey quite literally gives you a taste of a place. In Portland, Oregon, there are three Provenance Hotels properties within blocks of each other. Yet, as Kate Buska, vice president of brand development and communications, explains, the honey produced in each rooftop apiary has its own distinct flavor, depending on what flowering plants are nearby. "For example, if you taste the honey from Hotel Lucia - which is closest to the river, where there are cherry blossoms - it tastes different from the honey at Hotel deLuxe," she said. "At Hotel deLuxe, you can taste the rose blossoms that are closer to that property."
The ability to connect to the unique "fingerprint" of a place, as Sanchez calls it, makes for a meaningful experience. Whelan said that whether he's leading a trip to Myanmar, Tanzania, Madagascar or some other destination, if there's "a chance to source local honey, people are all over it." Consuming honey from bees that have gathered nectar from local flowers provides "this tangible connection to the local environment through food - something everybody needs and loves."
Executive chef Isabel Chung of Fairmont Chateau Whistler also has observed a growing interest among travelers "about where things come from and how you source them." Fairmont Hotels & Resorts facilitates this connection between its guests and the local environment through the Bee Sustainable program, placing beehives, pollinator-friendly gardens and miniature "bee hotels" on the rooftops of more than 20 of its properties around the world.
When the weather in Whistler, located in British Columbia, Canada, is honeybee-friendly, from around June to October, the resort offers guided tours of the rooftop garden and hives. (Chateau Whistler's bees spend the winter in nearby Lillooet with Steve Gourley, beekeeper and owner of Goldstrike Honey.)
Even a guest not previously concerned with sustainability may be intrigued enough by a hotel hive to dip a finger into some hyperlocal honey and consider dipping a toe into bee conservation, asking, " 'What can I do?' " Chung said.
If they're at Chateau Whistler, they can dine on honey-glazed Yarrow Meadows duck or sample the Honeybear Blonde chocolate bar made with honey, blueberries and almonds - ingredients that wouldn't exist without pollinators. Or they can support the cause by ordering a beeswax gin "Bee's Knees" cocktail; for each one purchased, Fairmont donates a dollar to Pollinator Partnership, the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting pollinators.
The properties emphasize that guests can take action without building a honeybee hive on their roof (in fact, installing a hive without proper training could do more harm than good to the bee population). "There's so many things an individual can do, even without a lot of outdoor space or time, to help sustain the populations of pollinators," Chung said. "Plant a pollinator-friendly plant in your garden or on your windowsill. Reduce or avoid using pesticides that are potentially dangerous. Put up a small solitary 'bee hotel' (a wooden structure to serve as a nesting place for wild bees) so they have somewhere to lay their eggs."
Accor Group, Fairmont's parent company, recently did just that, opening its first tiny bee hotel, arguably the most adorable lodging in Paris, at its headquarters. Chung was sent to do a honey tasting for the opening and was thrilled to see such excitement about and attention paid to the cause. "There's 4,000 people in that office" at Accor headquarters, she says. "And they were talking about sustainability and the beekeeping program at Fairmont - that had never happened before."
Travel industry professionals are teaming up with beekeeping experts like the Bee Squad, the Best Bees Co.and Bee Local to create memorable experiences for guests and safe spaces for honeybees to thrive in all kinds of locations: oceanfront at the Terranea Resort in Los Angeles, in the city center at New York Hilton Midtown, at quaint Cape Cod B&Bs Aerie House and Sesuit Harbor House, atop luxury hotels such as Taj Boston and the Merrion in Dublin, and in multiple locations across Qatar, thanks to a partnership between Mandarin Oriental Doha and Bu Saif Apiaries.
When you think about it, it makes sense that honeybees are at the heart of a travel-related trend - after all, they are an incredibly social species with an intricate community structure, always on the lookout for an authentic, hyperlocal meal.
This article was written by Sunny Fitzgerald, a reporter for The Washington Post.