There’s no red phone booth in the lobby of the Westin at Bear Mountain, but if there were Josh Houston might use it to change his identity from chef to beekeeper.
The sous chef has been donning beekeeper’s coveralls over his whites to harvest honey from five new bee boxes set up in a rock garden in front of the hotel.
“I’m still new at this,” he says, lifting the top off one of the boxes to reveal thousands of bees busily filling honeycombs on wooden frames.
Master beekeeper Brian Scullion of the James Bay Honey Company puffs smoke on the hive to distract the bees as Houston pulls out frames looking for the queen bee, who is noticeably larger than the other bees and has been marked with a green dot on her back.
The insects seem unbothered by having human hands in their home.
“They’re happy, heathy bees, you can tell by the quality honey they produce,” Scullion says, pointing to the neatly formed honeycombs.
They find the queen, who is responsible for populating the hives. She can lay 2,000 eggs per day and is mother to everyone working in her hive. She is surrounded by females, worker bees, concerned with keeping her fed so she can focus on reproducing.
“A good hive depends on a good queen,” Scullion explains.
He’s not wearing his bee suit, and for a laugh he picks a bee off the frame with his bare fingers. He’s grabbed a male bee, or drone, which doesn’t have a stinger—but most people don’t realize that about bees.
“My son likes to grab the drones and put them down his sister’s shirt,” he chuckles.
Only the female bees sting, but without good reason. Unless their queen is threatened, bees keep to themselves and their honey making, which make them a welcome addition to Bear Mountain.
The hives are expected to yield 300 pounds of honey this season, and when the colony is more established it could add another 200 pounds to the harvest.
About 50 per cent of that will be used in-house. Houston has been experimenting with honey glazes and sauces, as well as honey ice cream to serve at Panache, the fine dining restaurant at the resort.
“It’s definitely inspired our cooking having the fresh honey,” he said, noting the kitchen used to rely on a generic brand of bulk honey. “It tastes so much better, and it’s so much better for you, then what we used to use.”
Some of the honey will also be sent to the Big Rock Brewery in Alberta to use in its honey lager, which is on tap in the resort’s bars and pool-side lounge. And any leftover will be bottled and sold at the resort.
“We’re learning as we go,” said Houston, who went to a three day beekeeping boot camp before the hives arrived at the resort. “We wanted local honey, and this is about as local as it gets.”