Reap the sweet benefits when you check into this forest-themed hotel, where you share the space with trees and bees.
In a California beach town surrounded by redwood forests, I’m staying, aptly enough, in a forest-themed hotel. Rustic benches crafted entirely from teak tree roots — typically considered waste material in the timber industry, but here trimmed, shaped, and hand-finished into one-of-a-kind seating — adorn the lobby of Hotel Paradox in Santa Cruz, as do thirteen living birch trees. A huge tree trunk on its side is the front desk. A driftwood sculpture hangs on the wall. Lamps in the shape of squirrels sit on a table.
I’m here for a bee education talk and honey tasting from Santa Cruz Bee Company, who manages the hotel’s rooftop beehives. There, 10,000 bees make honey for seasonal food items served at the hotel’s restaurant, Solaire, including wildflower honey butter and a dessert of chocolate pot de crème served with honeycomb tuile, hazelnut crust, and matcha tea ganache. Solaire also serves honeycomb-shaped brioche.
For anyone who thinks all honey tastes the same, this experience is a revelation. The particular plants from which bees forage for nectar and pollen determine the flavor of the honey those bees produce, much like the terroir concept for wine. Varieties of honey often have names that indicate the plants from which they originate, and the flavor of orange blossom honey, for example, will differ from that of clover honey. Our speaker shows us a Honey Flavor Wheel, which divides honey tastes into basic categories like Floral, Spicy, Fruity, and Animal. The wheel was created by the Honey and Pollinator Center at the University of California, Davis, which identified ninety-nine flavor descriptors, from tropical fruit, chocolate, root beer, leather, and molasses, to barnyard.
In addition to its tastiness, honey is associated with a range of health benefits: it is rich in antioxidants and probiotics and is good for the blood, for digestion, and for the immune system. I’m sampling Hawaii macadamia honey, wildflower honey from France, New Zealand Manuka honey (a strong, earthy honey from the tea tree, known for its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties), and honeys from Ontario, Cuba, and Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz Bee Company owner Emily Bondor, who generally brings four to eight types of honey to tastings (along with cheese, crackers, and fruit), explains some differences: “Typically, spring honeys are lighter-gold in color, thicker, have a really floral — and sweet — confectionery flavor. They have pollen collected by bees when plants bloom in spring, but the bees process it into honey in summer. Fall honey is darker-colored with more earthy notes, collected in late summer or fall and processed in winter.” Bondor worked in organic agriculture and outdoor education before discovering her passion for bees and becoming a beekeeper on Maui. A former president of the Santa Cruz beekeepers guild, Bondor and her company now manage beehives for farms, homeowner backyards and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Bondor also teaches beekeeping classes and advises budding beekeepers in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas.
The same beehive can have both spring and fall honeys, Bondor notes, due to the different collection times. Honeys in more forested areas tend to be darker and earthier than honey from warmer low-lying areas, she adds. The Manuka honey is darker-colored with “more of a richness and depth, a more earthy flavor, not quite smoky but almost savory and a bit medicinal.”
Some beekeepers are adept at producing monofloral honeys by deliberately placing hives near a single crop, like almonds or tupelo. Bondor explains how bees make honey, breaking down nectar into simple sugars, storing it in a honeycomb’s hexagonal-shaped cells, and sealing it with wax. She lets us taste raw honeycomb. “Honeycomb goes well with more pungent cheeses like Camembert and Gorgonzola to balance the overwhelming sweetness,” she says.
Of the world’s roughly 20,000 bee species, California alone has 1,400, not including honey bees, which are not counted because honey bees (of which there are eight recognized species globally) are not native to North America. Honey bees live in colonies led by a queen bee, and a colony at its peak can contain five to 80,000 bees. When bees find nectar, they communicate the plant’s location to fellow bees in a “waggle dance,” placing their bodies at a certain angle to the sun, which changes as the day goes on.
One-third of the world’s food production depends on bees — they collect and spread pollen that allows plants, including crops, to reproduce. Bondor notes how climate change is threatening honey bees. A disconnect is growing between the time when plants produce pollen and when bees are ready to feed on it. “Unseasonably early blooms due to warmer weather and later rains have adverse effects. This past season on our Central California coast, stone fruits like plums, peaches, and apricots started blooming, then heavy rains later washed pollen off them, so bees couldn’t get this resource. Usually, we have rain in February and March, then in April, orchards start to bloom,” says Bondor.
Bees remember the unique scents of different plants, but, stressed by climate change, some plants are changing their scents, making it harder for bees to find them. Habitat loss is another threat, since factors such as urban growth and intensive farming are shrinking the natural, flowery terrain where bees flourish, and some bee species rarely change their habitat, in contrast to other insects who adapt more easily.
By encouraging beekeeping and expanding public appreciation of honey and how it’s produced, the Santa Cruz Bee Company and Hotel Paradox are doing what they can to help these hard-working pollinators, including reminding us of bees’ deliciously varied contributions.
What You Can Do
A few ways we can help hard-working bees:
- Avoid pesticides, but if you must use them, use ones that don’t harm bees and spray in windless weather, either during early morning or late night, when bees withdraw from blossoms.
- Plant native nectar-producing plants and cut grass on meadows after nectar-producing plants have bloomed.
- Engage in bee-focused citizen science.
- Leave your leaves. Leaf litter often provides protection for ground nesting bees.
- And, of course, try to curb carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.