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Beekeeping ecologist makes a business of hives

Urban bees have strong seasonal flavors

Noah Wilson-Rich of Best Bees Co. tends his hives in the backyard of his building in the South End.
Noah Wilson-Rich of Best Bees Co. tends his hives in the backyard of his building in the South End.(YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF)

Though the urban landscape doesn’t seem like it would be ideal for honeybees, the city of Boston hosts many thousands of them. Urban beekeeper Noah Wilson-Rich isn’t sure why bees love the city so much, but suspects that the greater diversity of plants, and thus food sources, has something to do with it.

That may explain why Boston honey has such strong seasonal flavors and colors. Summer honey is lighter, with citrus and mint tastes; fall honey is darker, with more hints of clover, leather, and smoke.

Wilson-Rich, 30, is responsible for a lot of the honey produced in the city. A behavioral ecologist with a doctorate in biology from Tufts (where, in addition to Simmons, he is an adjunct biology professor), the beekeeper has been busy trucking in hundreds of thousands of honeybees to elaborate rooftop gardens in the Back Bay and to yards in many other communities. His Best Bees Co., based in the South End, sets up and maintains hives on urban rooftops, in classrooms, and in urban and suburban gardens.

Wilson-Rich’s enthusiasm for bees is palpable, whether you catch him loading equipment into the back of his Scion or extracting honey at his makeshift lab, fittingly located in the back of a florist’s warehouse. He started Best Bees in 2010, establishing the company as a nonprofit to fund research on honeybee health.

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“I was so frustrated I couldn’t get grants for my research about honeybees,” Wilson-Rich says. “Bees are so important. We need them to grow our food.”

Despite their reputation as scary stingers, Wilson-Rich’s docile Italian honeybees (favored by beekeepers) have charmed their way into Bostonians’ backyards. His company had seven clients its first year and 11 in its second.

This year, Best Bees is finally earning a profit; six beekeepers tend hives for 60 clients across the state. Among them is the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel, which has about 130,000 bees in three hives on a second-floor rooftop. “We love honey. We use it on our cheese boards, with our afternoon teas,” says sales manager Jessica Tardif, who found out about Wilson-Rich’s company while researching other green initiatives. “We’ve been making a real effort to promote local, sustainable cuisine, and we figured if we could have something made right here, we should.”

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Tardif, 26, has since apprenticed with Wilson-Rich so she can assume the role of assistant beekeeper.

The chief beekeeper has other fans. “He’s a true ambassador of bees in the urban world, where people are generally so disconnected from nature,” says Mary Canning, owner of Follow the Honey in Harvard Square, where Wilson-Rich installed an indoor observation hive.

On the waterfront, the InterContinental Boston hosts bees on its rooftops. Hives are springing up in other urban centers. New York’s Waldorf-Astoria just set up hives on its roof, and Fairmont hotels from Kenya to Toronto are also hosting hives.

The bees at work, making cells for their honey.
The bees at work, making cells for their honey.(YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF)

“It was my first time being involved in anything like this,” says Stefan Jarausch, executive chef at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. “I was very impressed with the simplicity of the process and the quality of the product.” He is putting the hotel’s abundant honey yield to good use, mixing it into smoothies and adding it to a best-selling peach and berry crisp. Jarausch plans to use the honey in dressings and marinades for meats in the fall, perhaps even to brine chicken.

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On his roof deck across from the Christian Science Center, Robert Millman slathers honey from Best Bees-managed hives onto grilled meats. After reading an article in Urban Gardener, Millman, a lawyer, decided that bees were what his rooftop garden was missing. His strawberry yield has increased tenfold, and his lavender plants “went nuts,” he says.

“Any time we’ve had an inspection of the hives [by Wilson-Rich], we’ve had friends over to watch the bees,” says Millman. “They all loved it.” When it was time for their first harvest, the Millmans invited several families to join them. The harvest yielded 50 jars.

Wilson-Rich is confident that the beekeeping trend will keep growing. “I don’t think the big explosion is here just yet,” he says. “We’re ahead of the curve of people right now. But we’re going out there to change people’s perceptions.”

Best Bees Co.can be reached at www.bestbees.com.


Talia Ralph can be reached at talia.ralph
@gmail.com.