Dine: Restaurants sweeten up with their own beehives

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Beekeeping is becoming a part of the repertoire of some Pittsburgh restaurants, with a handful maintaining rooftop hives.

They include The Porch at Schenley in Oakland; Elements, the restaurant for Google employees at its office in Larimer; and the Duquesne Club, Downtown.

On Tuesday evening, the Duquesne Club held Swarm, an event to celebrate the honey it has named Hive 325, after the club’s Sixth Avenue address.

Bees in the City

Master beekeeper Stephen Repasky talks about the bee craze and what is driving restaurants to keep their own hives. (Video by Julia Rendleman; 08/17/2014)

For now, it’s the only Downtown business that’s raising bees, which the club will sell to members and use in the kitchen. Diners will find it in desserts such as meringues or baklava, in savory preparations such as a lamb tenderloin with honey glaze, and in the Bee’s Knees classic cocktail.

The trend is in keeping with the rise of urban beekeeping and hyper-local sourcing. Even super-elite locations such as the Waldorf Astoria in New York and the White House have taken up the hobby.

Bees on the rebound

According to the National Honey Board, there are somewhere between 115,000 to 125,000 beekeepers in the U.S.; most are hobbyists. According to the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association, the state has about 3,500 registered beekeepers.

Stephen Repasky, master beekeeper and president of Burgh Bees, says his urban nonprofit group based in North Point Breeze has worked with the Penn State Cooperative Extension of Allegheny County to train more than 500 people in beekeeping.

He estimates there are 60 to 150 bee colonies in the city, but there may be more. “Beekeepers are in general a shy group,” he says. “There are likely more that we don’t know of.”

Rooftop real estate

On the sixth-floor rooftop of the Duquesne Club, past the potted vegetable garden, a raised platform serves as the deck for four hives, each with a copper roof and eight honeycombed shelves.

It’s here where assistant pastry chef-turned beekeeper Sara Milarski tends to the hives every few days. She’s outfitted in a beekeeper’s garb with a smoker to sedate bees as she works.

Although the club has had bees on the roof since last year, this spring was the first harvest of nearly 40 pounds. Last year, Ms. Milarski and executive chef Keith Coughenour opted to leave the honey for the bees over the winter.

The Swarm as the name of Tuesday’s event is no accident. In the past year, the club’s bees have swarmed twice, a sign that the colony is reproducing and needs more room to survive.

The first time it happened, bees swarmed to a ledge of the Duquesne Club, where Mr. Coughenour was talked through what he needed to do to keep the colony from leaving by Mr. Repasky. Mr. Coughenour slipped into his veil and beekeeper’s suit and collected as many bees as he could in a box, then transferred them to a new hive alongside the originals.

Mr. Repasky also works with The Porch at Schenley, the restaurant run by Parkhurst Dining. It started with two hives when the restaurant opened, and two more were added this year.

Since The Porch started beekeeping in 2012, it has harvested 150 to 200 pounds of honey a year that’s used in dessert, with cheese pairings and occasionally in pizza dough, says Mike Damas, general manager.

This year, the restaurant will give 25 pounds to Steve Sloan at Roundabout Brewery in Lawrenceville to use for a fall brew.

Few angry bees

At the Duquesne Club, only Mr. Coughenour has been stung, twice for going into the hives without gloves and once from a rogue bee that stung him on the forehead while he was giving a tour.

If anyone with a bee allergy gets stung, the club has four EpiPens and Mr. Coughenour carries one with him at all times. These auto-injectors deliver a dose of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, to treat severe allergies that in some people can be fatal. 

Mr. Damas is allergic to bees and has never been stung at work. It helps that Mr. Repasky positioned rooftop hives so bees fly away from the entrance and outdoor dining as they leave the hives. Still, Mr. Damas is prepared with an EpiPen should he or anyone else with an allergy get stung.

So are his colleagues at Elements, the restaurant for Google employees, also run by Parkhurst Dining. 

“Bees aren’t aggressive like wasps,” says Mark Bedillion of Bedillion Honey Farm & Market in Hickory. He has 200 hives that house roughly 60,000 bees on his property, which bring him a yield of 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of honey a year since he started 10 years ago.

The farm sells honey through the market and to 40 restaurants through Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance. It also outfits customers with hives and beekeeping apparatus.

“They won’t come after you unless you’re disturbing the nest,” he told a recent tour group. 

Closed in a honey harvesting room the size of a walk-in closet, eight people were surrounded by hives, with only a curious few among thousands of bees buzzing around visitors. During an anxiety-inducing 20 minutes, no one was stung. 

Back at the Duquesne Club, Ms. Milarski said she, too, had been nervous around bees when she first started beekeeping. Her nerves gave way to fascination. 

Between her observing bees’ roles within a hive and how the colonies have grown this year, “I can’t believe how much I’m learning,” she says.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. 

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