An unlikely long-term guest at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center stays at the very top of the downtown hotel – 100,000 guests, actually. But instead of luxurious rooms, they prefer hexagonal cells attached to frames inside an apiary on the hotel parking structure’s rooftop. And rather than pay for their stay in cash, these guests offer a precious liquified gold and service to community green spaces.
That gold is honey, and that service is pollination. And the Hilton’s honeybees have just returned from California, where they were pollinating a monocrop of almonds. Now back in Milwaukee, they will travel up to five miles away from the Hilton each day in search of nectar and pollen. They’ll visit any green space from elaborate backyard gardens to small pockets of blooms in planters lining downtown streets.
Beekeeper Robert McKinney, owner of MJD Apiary, cares for the honeybees at the Hilton. He has spent the past 11 years turning his backyard hobby into a city-wide urban beekeeping service. He visits his apiary (a collection of beehives) once a week to inspect the hives, perform any necessary maintenance and harvest beeswax and honeycomb.
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Like urban farming and creating city green spaces, urban beekeeping contributes to environmental and human health. The greatest health benefits to humans, like soothing cold symptoms and the potential to alleviate seasonal allergies, come from raw (unfiltered and unpasteurized) honey containing pollen from the surrounding area.
McKinney says the definition of truly “local” honey is quite narrow: it comes from a hive within a 50-mile radius. Beyond that, plant species start to vary, and so will the pollen that bees use to make their honey. He says the biodiversity available in urban spaces gives the bees plenty to pollinate, and that city bees actually tend to be healthier – they can access native flowers that often lack the pesticides that conventional agriculture applies in rural areas.
“Beekeeping completes the narrative of sustainability,” says McKinney.
McKinney’s sustainability pitch caught Executive Chef Dan Granat’s attention. Granat runs the Hilton’s ChopHouse restaurant and incorporates local ingredients in his cooking whenever possible. He uses honey from McKinney’s hives in desserts, cocktails and a popular brussels sprouts side.
“It’s so versatile,” says Granat. “Honey pulls out flavors better than sugar can.”
Granat says the ChopHouse’s cooking staff have managed to keep small gardens on the rooftop from time to time, but they couldn’t manage a hive if it weren’t for McKinney. Successful beekeeping requires special equipment, experience and time. When McKinney dons his protective shirt and veiled hat, he calmly approaches the apiary with a hive smoker in hand, ready to “read the frame.” That means looking for eggs and larvae, checking that the queen is healthy and knowing the signs of disease.
“A lot of people think that you can just grab the bees, throw them in a box and they’ll do what they do, but there’s so much to being a beekeeper,” says McKinney. “It’s science, art and math.”
Apiculture only partially domesticates bees. A beekeeper can help maintain a colony and harvest honeycomb, but can’t control what blooms the bees visit (or flowers’ seasonality.) McKinney must rely on color, viscosity and taste to determine what variety of honey his bees have produced. Basswood tree blossoms generate a bright yellow, mild-tasting honey. Wildflower honey has a familiar golden hue and comes from a mixture of native flowers, often autumnal blooms. Then there’s buckwheat honey; a viscous, amber-colored variety with a rich flavor.
Of the 20,000 bee species worldwide, only nine of those produce honey that humans can consume. Bumble bees and some wasps make a similar nectar-based substance, but only enough to feed their own colony. Species like Apis mellifera, the European honeybee commonly kept by beekeepers in the U.S., make enough honey to store for winter. And they happen to generate such a surplus of stored wax, pollen and honeycomb that makes apiculture possible.
In autumn, McKinney sent the bees with another beekeeper on a semi-truck filled with apiaries so that they can avoid the unpredictable Wisconsin winter. A colony can easily keep warm inside an apiary for months, but winter increases susceptibility to the parasitic mite Varroa destructor. Varroa mites weaken bees and transmit viruses, leaving them susceptible to diseases. McKinney says even the most experienced beekeepers find the mite difficult to manage and prevent colony losses.
Aside from a beginner’s beekeeping course, McKinney is a self-taught apiarist. Now he shares his knowledge with others by giving presentations at schools, and plans to expand his educational offerings in the future with “beekeeper for a day” tours of some of his hives. MJD Apiary also offers bee removal/relocation services for honeybees, native bees and wasps as alternatives to extermination for anyone with an infestation problem. For McKinney, beekeeping also means being a steward for these pollinators.
“The hives are a jewel in their crown,” he says.
This upcoming summer marks the fourth year of McKinney’s Hilton apiary, and soon you’ll find bottled raw honey for sale at the hotel. MJD Apiary honey and other products like beeswax hand lotion and lip balm are currently available online and at local pop-up markets.