Beekeeper Revival

It's more than honey on the line

Photos by Tiffany Oishi

As sweet as it is, honey is not the bottom line in beekeeping. The truth: To protect a honeybee is to protect our food supply. One-third of our daily diet is cross-pollinated by honeybees. Those foods, mostly fruits and vegetables, depend on honey bees to transfer pollen between plants, enabling fertilization. On top of that, artisan honey — produced by honeybees and harvested by beekeepers — is liquid gold among foodies.

That’s why Daniel Sullivan, owner of West Seattle-based Shipwreck Honey, is passionate about partnering with property owners, especially hotels and restaurants, to bring beekeeping into cities. Sullivan has 40 beehives carefully spread out in the Greater Seattle area, including at the Salish Lodge in Snoqualmie and the Woodmark Hotel in Kirkland. Wherever Sullivan goes, he sees potential homes for honeybees.

“If you can imagine it, you can do it, or you can certainly try,” Sullivan said. “I see a city that is desperate for honey made in the city, by the city. I see this honey on every menu and on your table. The city becomes your farm. It’s the neatest thing. I get excited thinking about it.”

Photo by Greg Moss

Sullivan is also on a mission. There is a national crisis in the honeybee community — honeybees are dying at alarming rates in mostly rural communities. The phenomenon is called colony collapse disorder. Some, including Sullivan, believe the problem’s sources are chemical spraying and genetically modified plants. The mysterious outbreak has triggered a beekeeper revival, even in the most unlikely of urban landscapes. Revivalists like Sullivan are determined to spread the honeybee as far and wide as possible by building, maintaining and harvesting more beehives and educating people. His best advice: Buy local.

When selecting a honey, carefully consider where it comes from. A honey’s flavor depends on location, location, location. Honeybees can forage up to six miles from the hive, and whatever type of pollen honeybees bring back dictates the honey’s taste. A multiple-variety honey, like a wildflower honey, comprises many wildflower sources and flavors. A single-source honey, like a deep, full-bodied blackberry honey, tastes like one source: blackberries. At Shipwreck Honey, the best-seller is Orange Blossom Honey, which is made by Washington bees living in California. The decadent honey has a citrus pop. Elliott Bay Brewing Co. has crafted an Orange Blossom Special beer to showcase the citrus honey flavor.

For Shipwreck Honey, working with hotels and restaurants grew organically. Sullivan builds, installs and manages the hives at the host property. Then, he harvests and delivers back the honey. The property owners don’t have to do anything if they don’t want to.

Sullivan “is like one of us. He does such an amazing job maintaining the health and productivity of the bees,” said Rod Lapasin, general manager of the Salish Lodge and Spa. “It’s great to have someone with such passion, and his passion is unbridled. … He puts so much love and care into what he does for us.”

The Salish Lodge started its honeybee program in May 2011 to do its part to protect the honeybee, to pollinate crops in the Snoqualmie Valley with those bees and to produce its own honey products. Starting in September, the signature honey became available for purchase, just in time for the holiday season. Some of the items at Salish include: Salish honey truffles, honey and oatmeal body scrub, a Salish honey bee specialty cocktail and a raw jersey cow’s milk tomme-style cheese, aged for 90 days, known as the Salish, which is crafted by River Valley Cheese. At the Herb and Honey Scrub Bar, guests work with a spa mixologist to blend herbs fresh from the Salish herb garden, the signature honey, essential oils, salts and/or sugar into custom scrubs. The custom scrubs are used in a variety of spa treatments, manicures and pedicures. The property is also partnering with Snoqualmie Brewery to brew its own exclusive honey beer.

“The phenomenal reaction (from the public) has been overwhelming. It is one of those great things,” Lapasin said. “It demonstrates that we are doing something wonderful with the environment.”

Woodmark Hotel, Yacht Club & Spa at Kirkland’s Carillon Point began its “Bee on the Lake” program this year with Shipwreck Honey’s assistance because of the distinction and creativity that come with using artisan honey. The Woodmark’s honey — which has blackberry notes — enhances cocktails, desserts, marinades and salad dressings for the restaurant Bin on the Lake. Honey and ginger glazed chicken, honey crème brulee and panna cotta, and the French 75, a specialty cocktail, have been particular favorites. The distinctive honey is also used in foot scrubs and spa treatments in the Northwest Face Spa. “It’s our signature. And, excuse the pun, it gets a lot of buzz,” said John Murphy, general manager of the Woodmark. “It’s a good way to use the Earth in the way that we are.”

Beekeeping 101

Beekeeping is an art and a science, with lots of room in between for opinion, said Sullivan, a self-taught beekeeper. Edward Aljernon Sullivan, a beekeeper enthusiast and Sullivan’s great-grandfather, gave young Sullivan his first taste of wild honeycomb in the timbered mountains of North Idaho. Sullivan had a passing fancy for bees in his youth — nothing life-changing — until he tracked down an obscure question about bees about three years ago. Curiosity became obsession. He works a part-time job in the hotel industry to pay the bills. But his real payday is sharing the joy people experience savoring artisan honey. Honey opens new experiences and brings back sweet memories, he said.

“Honey is an emotional currency. I think we don’t see enough good honey,” said Sullivan.This is a labor of love. At his workshop on Alki, Sullivan builds his “sexy little mansions” — the beehives. Sizes, wood and styles of beehives vary among beekeepers. Sullivan prefers cedar or pine boxes that are 3 feet by 4 feet by 3 feet and can be stacked four high. The color and finish match the high-end, beautiful aesthetic of the properties where the hives are placed. “If I was a honeybee, I would love to live there. I think happy bees are healthy bees, and I have the happiest,” said Sullivan.

To keep the honeybees happy, Sullivan has to work hard. Bugs, spiders, mice and vandals, which try to get inside or break hives, must be repelled. Honeybee diseases must be detected and treated quickly and effectively. The beekeeper’s greatest technical challenge is overwintering — keeping honeybees safe and dry over the winter to keep as many alive as possible. Every spring, new bees — called packaged bees — will be added to bring the hive back to full strength.“There is a joy that I have that I can’t quite explain that when I get into a hive, all is well,” Sullivan said. “I open up a hive and I swear the bees are happy to see you.”

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