Counter intelligence: The W's latest buzz

  • Article by: BY RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2012 - 2:07 PM

That sound you hear downtown? It's rooftop beekeepers.

On the roof of the W Hotel Minneapolis, with beekeeper Susan Brown.

Photo: Rick Nelson, Star Tribune

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There's a swarm of new guests at the W Minneapolis-The Foshay hotel. About 120,000 bees have checked into a pair of exclusive suites on the second-floor roof, just above the hotel's lobby at 9th Street and Marquette Avenue S.

Yes, the downtown rooftop trend now extends to apiaries. The two wooden hives debuted in May, and they're not there to give hotel guests something to gaze at from their windows, although that's a nice byproduct.

Nope. St. Paul beekeeper and chocolatier Susan Brown is going to use the hives' honey in bonbons, for the hotel to offer as a locally made amenity.

"We wanted to provide a special, personalized touch that you can't get anywhere else," said Susan Mabry, the W's general manager. "As far as we know, we're the only hotel in Minnesota doing this, and only one of a few hotels in the country."

Brown has been in the honey business since 2006. "Bees are so inspirational," she said. "The more research that I did, the more fascinated I became."

At the W, Brown has dubbed her two queens -- one for each hive -- Wilhelmina and Wendy. Their hives were built by Brown's husband, Robert Brown, a Walker Art Center carpenter, using a design inspired by the hives in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. The inspiration for urban rooftop apiaries also originates in Paris: The Palais Garnier opera house has been home to hives for nearly 30 years.

Brown visits once a week to check on the bees' honeymaking progress, and to replenish their water supply. The journey requires a careful walk through a maze of massive air conditioning units, a trip up a slightly vertigo-inducing ladder and a costume change into protective gear.

Brown graciously gave me a tour last week. After cautiously pulling a frame from one of the hives and gently brushing away a small swarm of bees, she pressed a spoon into the soft, geometrically precise honeycomb. The spoon quickly filled with a golden, warmed-by-the-sun honey. I took a taste, and the mellow flavor blossomed on my tongue. It was exquisite.

"There's nothing more pure than this," she said.

Brown estimates that she will be able to extract 100 pounds of honey from the W's apiary this year. She added that downtowners won't notice their industrious new neighbors, but their impact will soon be readily apparent.

"Everything they pollinate will become more beautiful and more vibrant," she said. Two other fun facts: Bees can travel up to 3 miles in their intrepid search for nectar, and they have to visit 2 million flowers to produce a pound of honey.

For those who don't want to book a room at the W, Brown's distinctively gorgeous honey bonbons -- made from honey harvested from other hives she maintains and sold under the Mademoiselle Miel label -- are available at Surdyk's and Sugar Sugar in Minneapolis, and the Golden Fig in St. Paul.

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