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Big Boss, Sitti and Market mind their hives

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Ben Crawley hates heights. But he loves bees, which is why one night in the spring of 2010, he found himself installing a beehive on the roof at Market Restaurant in Raleigh. To hoist the hive—a 200-pound colony—Crawley says he "pulled a platform on a rope, hand over hand."

"Thank God one of the girls that helped us move it used to perform in Cirque du Soleil or whatever," says Chad McIntyre, Market's chef and owner. "Ben's all on the roof like this," McIntyre says, cowering, "and she's literally like another ladder [over with] a foot hanging off. I was like, 'It's all you, sister.'"

McIntyre and Crawley, who owns Mr. Buzz beekeeping service (and whose Ford F-150 sports a personalized license plate that bears his business' name), knew that despite the difficulty of moving the hives, placing bees on the restaurant roof would pay off.

From a business standpoint, honey is expensive. "It was kind of one of those things with me being the cheap-ass that I am," McIntyre says about his entry into beekeeping. "I was like, we'll just get our own hives." But he was also attracted by the opportunity to source honey on site, which is consistent with Market's mission to create a menu based on locally sourced foods.

Crawley, a member of the Wake County Beekeepers Association, wanted to provide a home for honeybees, whose numbers have significantly declined in the United States over recent years because of colony collapse disorder—which many scientists theorize is linked to pesticides.

"That's really what we're shooting for—repopulating the local bees," says Crawley.

To say that honeybees are an integral part of the food chain doesn't begin to underscore their importance. One-third of all food consumed in the United States is directly connected to the bee.

It's for these reasons that Market now finds itself among a growing group of Raleigh businesses, includes Sitti Lebanese restaurant and Big Boss Brewing, who manage their own hives in hopes of producing honey. It's a project that Crawley expects will only continue to grow, driven by consumer demand. "A lot of these people have their backyard gardens, chickens [and] bees. They want to spend their money at a business that's got a like mind," he says.

Bee aficionados are building such business models by consulting with interested companies and individuals. Busy Bee Apiaries, commercial beekeepers and wholesalers based in Chapel Hill, led Sitti's operation.

A family-owned business, Busy Bee offered a beekeeping workshop for about 12 staff members associated with Empire Eats, a Raleigh restaurant group that includes Sitti. Busy Bee also provided the restaurant with bees and equipment, and helped set up multiple hives on its roof, which towers three stories above downtown Raleigh on the corner of Hargett and Wilmington streets. Sitti moved the hives to the roof via elevator, avoiding the logistical difficulties Market faced.

At the lift's highest stop, sliding metal doors open to reveal a small pass-through that contains a few beekeeping tools including a helmet and veil. "Some of us are a little less daring than others," says Sean Stoneback, a bar manager at Sitti.

He steps onto the roof and removes the lid from a wooden hive chamber. Bees emerge from between comb-coated frames, flying level with the city's skyline.

Below, traffic cuts constantly through paved, store-lined streets, providing a seemingly sterile environment for honeybees. But a block away, Moore Square Park offers a bee buffet. Nearby, the governor's lawn is thick with flowering plants (not to mention its own set of honeybees). And at stops between, the bees can light on trees and flowerpots.

"They'll forage anywhere that they can," says Laura Tapp, who co-owns Busy Bee. "They'll go anywhere between a three-to-five mile radius from where they are, so they have a large area to forage. If they find some sweet nectar somewhere, they're going to get it."

For bees at Big Boss Brewing, it's a short flight for food. Tim Sullivan, who runs the program, hopes to have honey within a year to use in Big Boss beers. He keeps hives on the ground in the brewery's backyard, which also features a garden.

Sullivan's decision to keep the colonies at ground level compared to higher spots like those at Sitti and Market (which moved its bees on top of a tall but more accessible storage container behind the restaurant after a tornado last spring ravaged the rooftop hives) has more to do with available space than results. The bees will do well no matter their placement. "It doesn't affect them at all because they are very adaptable," Tapp explains.

Regarding people's perceptions of bees in public spaces, however, positioning means a great deal. "The knee-jerk reaction is, 'I'm afraid the bee is going to sting me and I'm going to try to avoid it,'" says Dr. John T. Ambrose, the former extension beekeeping specialist at N.C. State University. He still works closely with the apiculture program there. "The likelihood of actually being stung by a bee is very, very small," he adds, explaining that more often than not, similar-looking yellow jackets are the culprit.

Still, keeping bees out of plain sight or at a distance assuages fears for those who are wary. "No one knows they're there," explains Greg Hatem of Empire Eats about the hives at Sitti.

Later this month, Sitti will begin harvesting its honey, which will feature a flavor all its own. Raw honey, in a manner similar to oysters or wine, reveals the taste of its place, as the bee channels the nectar it has feasted on.

Hatem was inspired by honey's terroir while eating his way through Lebanon a few years ago. Members of his extended family live there, and a cousin traveled from a mountainous village near Beirut and presented Hatem with a jar of local honey. "It kind of just really solidified the conviction to get this done," Hatem says. "We wanted to see what kind of honey we could produce. There are so many types of trees and plants in downtown."

Sitti will brand its product Hargett Street Honey, which it plans to bottle and incorporate into its menu.

Already, honey from Sitti's own bees—harvested by Busy Bee at its Chapel Hill farm before the insects were sold to the restaurant—is featured in a number of dishes. The Bee Sting cocktail provides a hefty yet light floral base for Junior Johnson moonshine, simple syrup, lemon juice, tea and mint. And for ashta, it sweetly softens crisp phyllo dough atop cool folds of milk pudding, bananas and pistachios.

"A lot of Lebanese restaurants don't make it anymore," Hatem says of the latter. "It's a little bit difficult to put that all together. To us, that makes us want to do it even more. We love the challenge and we really try to make this restaurant mirror what our grandmothers did."

That includes, of course, incorporating local nectar. Hatem expects to pull more than enough honey from his hives this summer to meet demand. As Tapp estimates, "a normal hive of bees will produce 100 pounds of honey in a summer"—a big payoff for what amounts to very little (though specialized) work.

"It's very hands-off," Sullivan says of the process. Tapp concurs. "It's not like having a cat where you've got to clean the litter box everyday. In fact, the more successful the hive is, usually the more hands-off the person who owns them is. The number one thing that kills a hive of bees is not predators, it's not weather . . . it's a beekeeper going into the hives too many times."

So Tapp tries to teach upcoming beekeepers how to resist opening the hives and intervening in the bees' process. Instead, it's usually better to leave the bees alone.

"You want to set them up for success," Tapp says of her clients. Busy Bee, which began in 1998, has barely kept up with demand this year. It has even run out of products and had to outsource for the first time.

"It used to be that it wasn't cool to be a beekeeper," Tapp says. But because of an increase in knowledge about bees and their importance to the agricultural cycle, she says she has seen the profession moving from "a taboo kind of thing to it being en vogue. Now everybody is doing it. Having a beehive in your backyard is not a big deal."

Urban hives are huge, however, in terms of supporting the local ecosystem.

"I don't want to overdramatize it," Ambrose says of hobbyists or small-scale beekeepers, "but I think they're really the salvation to the problem. We need to do everything we can to keep bee numbers up, and putting them on top of roofs is a small step, but it's an important step. It's looking outside of the box."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Raleigh's bee team."

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