Every Thursday, Susan Brown scales the metal stairs that lead to the top of the historic Union Depot, opens the door and crosses the roof to a stunning view of the Mississippi River and its steep limestone bluffs.
But Brown keeps her eyes on something — actually somethings — far smaller: five beehives and the thousands of worker bees buzzing in and out of wooden boxes.
It’s here, six stories above the streets of downtown St. Paul, where Brown, one of a growing cadre of urban beekeepers who take seriously their role as stewards of food and agriculture in the center of the city, checks weekly on the health of her bees.
Brown, who is also a chocolatier and owner of Mademoiselle Miel, collects honey here and at other hives in St. Paul and Minneapolis that will be used to make the honey-filled bonbons she sells at the depot, several area hotels and at her St. Paul shop.
What’s in it for her? “Building a foundation for my business to grow,” Brown said of her work combining beekeeping, chocolate and honey for the past nine years. “But it’s also part of my mission to show how nature works, how we all work together, like the bees in the hives.”
Brown, 56, started working the Union Depot hives about three years ago when she lived in one of the historic transportation hub’s condos. A chocolatier who uses honey as a filling to complement the unsweetened chocolate in her bonbons, she said the depot operators were enthusiastic about the idea.
Brown also tends to hives atop the Hyatt hotel and Tiny Diner in Minneapolis, as well as at the Metro Square Building and St. Paul Public Housing Agency in St. Paul.
“She came to us and pitched the idea and we really loved it and took it from there,” said Tina Volpe, the depot’s marketing manager. “Given the plight of bees and their importance, we lobbied for it.”
Still, it took about a year to win city approval for the hives. Brown had to prove that they wouldn’t be a public nuisance — the rooftop location helped — and agree to locate them away from the rooftop patio. Honeybees, unlike wasps, are not aggressive, but they can sting.
“There’s a process,” Volpe said. “It’s not just ‘Hey, you want to put some bees on the roof?’ ”
Other cities in the metro area, such as Minneapolis and Eagan, have passed laws to allow and encourage beekeeping. Minneapolis more recently amended its ordinance to allow hives on rooftops taller than one story without requiring neighbors’ approval. Last year, Shorewood became the first city in Minnesota to pass a policy encouraging planting bee-friendly flowers and restricting certain pesticides. Since then, several metro cities, including St. Louis Park, Lake Elmo, Andover and Stillwater, have pledged to become bee-friendly.
There are hives at Minneapolis City Hall, as well as at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota and at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Promoters see urban beehives as a way to offset the loss of bees elsewhere because of pesticide use. A good share of the world’s food supply relies on bees for pollination.
Of course, there are sweeter rewards to keeping bees.
As with Brown’s hives atop the Hyatt and Tiny Diner, the honey harvested at the Depot each August belongs to the building. The owners of the buildings that host her hives contract with Brown to bottle it and use it in candies that those businesses market to their customers. Union Depot honey and confections are sold under the Bee Line label, and are offered online and at kiosks during depot events, such as last Saturday’s National Train Day. Brown uses honey from her other hives in her own line of Mademoiselle Miel products.
One day last week, wearing protective clothing, Brown checked on her rooftop hives and the productivity of her queens. She shot tufts of smoke from a small can into the hives to calm the bees before removing the screens from inside the boxes. Bees and larvae were already at work, filling cells. Queens — one of which Brown has named Betty — will continue laying eggs until the hives are full.
The depot roof is a safe spot for bees, she said. “We don’t have to worry about bears.”
And the honey made here has a distinctive smoky flavor, Brown said, thanks to the basswood trees that grow in the Mississippi River Valley. Bees typically range 2 to 3 miles in search of nectar, making those trees, as well as the fruit trees in Mears Park, a primary food source.
“I think the best thing about this honey,” she said, “is that it is a taste of St. Paul.”