BBC Capital

When your office mate has six legs and can sting

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What do Buckingham Palace, the White House, and Sydney's downtown Swissôtel have in common?

Bees. And lots of them. 

From London to Hong Kong to France, companies are entering the world of urban beekeeping by installing hives on roof decks, some containing more than 100,000 insects. For the companies and beekeepers that install and maintain the hives, it’s a chance to make their own honey, plus make other products to sell or use, create a selling point and bolster an environmentally-friendly reputation.

In London’s Piccadilly Circus area, department store Fortnum & Mason maintains live-stream cameras to document 24-hour bee activity around their four hives, which are outfitted with gilded roofs and copper finials. The store sells Fortnum’s Bees’ Honey for £10 ($13.25) a jar and also sells hive visitation tickets that include a champagne honey tasting for £35 ($46.40).

Businesses like Swissôtel in Sydney that don’t sell their honey or allow hive visitation say they still find value in bee keeping’s indirect benefits, both as a source of sweetener for their restaurants and as a conversation starter

“I love the surprise on guests’ faces when they find out our honey comes from in-house,” said Ross Buchanan, Swissôtel Sydney’s executive assistant manager. “It definitely creates a good selling point.”

Buchanan said beekeeping supports their brand’s commitment to environmental sustainability, a concern at the forefront of many businesses’ choice to install hives.

Some say this nascent effort by companies and organisations to keep bees atop their buildings provides a city-based solution to the problem of declining bee populations, but critics contend it puts more stress on bee populations that compete in cities for scarce food sources. 

In Australia, honey is an AUD$80 million ($116 million) industry and the country is the 10th-largest exporter of the product. Apart from honey, bees make a significant contribution to agricultural plant pollination. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about one third of plant products consumed by humans are pollinated by bees.

Honey-infused profits

Swissôtel’s hives have occupied a surreptitious northeast hotel corner on the tenth floor since November 2011. Buchanan said the hive contains 200,000 bees and produced 413 kilos (911 pounds) of honey in 18 months. Their chefs incorporate the yield into menu items like honey-infused goat cheese croquettes and guests can self-serve chunks of honeycomb at breakfast. Excess honey is given to the hotel’s apiarist Doug Purdie who sells it at retail stores and farmers markets — and keeps the profits. His margins, however, are slim due to the amount of work hours and costs involved in getting products ready for sale.

For most businesses, Purdie said, owning a hive is partly a passion project because it costs more to maintain than it does to purchase bulk wholesale honey, which sells for AUD $4 ($3.67) per kilo in Australia. “Bees are essential in our food chain and it’s nice to see businesses think beyond their bottom line,” Purdie said.

For AUD $150 ($137) per month, Swissôtel leases hives from Purdie who normally charges businesses an annual AUD $370 fee. This price increase allows Swissôtel to keep the majority of the honey Purdie harvests whereas his standard fee allots his clients a single bucket of honey. Purdie’s price also includes installation and maintenance on company grounds — his biggest expense is parking. So far he maintains 55 hives across 15 clients including Swissôtel.

Purdie began his beekeeping business, the Urban Beehive, in 2010 after he learned of the drastic drop in bee populations. Across the Middle East, Europe and the United States, cases of Colony Collapse Disorder (the sudden disappearance of bees from their hives) have increased exponentially since 2005. Experts point to parasitic viruses like Varroa mites and pesticides as a potential cause.

In April this year, the European Commission banned the use of the widely-used pesticide neonicotinoids for two years because of its potential association with bee deaths. Lack of bee pollination, the UN contends, can mean up to a 75% crop loss for farmers, leading to smaller harvests and higher food prices. But as the only Varroa-free country in the world, Purdie said, Australia’s urban beekeeping movement has been slow to catch on.

“People don't see a reason to look after bees here. But once the disease comes over they will be concerned, so it’s a chicken and egg thing,” Purdie said.

Too many urban hives?

Since New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Board lifted a decade-long city beekeeping ban in March of 2010, businesses, including the Waldorf-Astoria and the Times Square Intercontinental Hotel have gotten in on the buzz.London overturned a similar ban in 2010, which led to a flourish in urban apiaries, including installations at the Tate Modern, the London Stock Exchange and Buckingham Palace.  The greater London area maintains an estimated 3,500 apiaries — that’s 10 hives per square kilometre — although that figure may be higher since only 75% of beekeepers register their hives. 

But that explosion may come with a downside. London Beekeeping Association Secretary Angela Woods and others say there is not enough nectar and pollen from flowering plants to sustain booming bee populations in some cities. “If you want to save the tiger you don't buy one, you make sure it’s protected, healthy and has a good environment to thrive in,” said Woods, adding that planting for bees would be more sustainable and useful. 

“We are not anti-urban beekeeping,” Woods said. “We want well-trained bee keepers and forage planting. You can do a lot for bees without actually having to keep them.”

Purdie continues to install hives at Sydney-based businesses and other venues. At marketing company Pollinate, Purdie was surprised when staff asked him to clean the windows by their hive; they were too afraid to go near it.

“Sometimes companies just need reassurance that they won't get stung,” Purdie said.

Sometimes companies just need reassurance that they won't get stung — Doug Purdie