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Hotel Beekeeper Takes To The Roof

By all accounts, New Hampshire is in the midst of a bee-boom: bee classes and clubs are overflowing with new members. And a conference center in Concord that has caught the bug, but had to overcome a unique challenge to keep bees.

To find the bees of Concord’s Courtyard Marriott Conference center, you’ll have to resort to unusual methods. Prop a ladder against the side of the building and start climbing. Up top is a beekeeper, who’s also the father of the Marriott’s general manager, named Al Bissonnette.

“This is a trade I’ve been doing all my life,” Al explains. At one point he had 500 hives, but “we have three hives here on the roof, and there’s probably around 20,000 bees in a box.”

Rooftop beekeeping is hardly new. In dense, urban areas, hives are sprinkled all over; there’s even one on the roof of NPR’s headquarters in DC. But the Marriott grounds have plenty of space, so why the elevation?

Bissonnette explains that when bees approach a building they have to start climbing “60 feet out, before he gets to any door entrances.” They have to take that trajectory “because they’re loaded with honey coming in, and pollen and nectar. So they need to get that going you know like a plane taking off at the airport.”

Last year, the hotel’s management decided they wanted to produce their own honey, but were worried about guests getting too close to buzzing hives. By putting them on the roof, the hotel ensures their guests will never have to confront a bee on their way into the lobby.

Bissonnette checks on the bees about once a week. He starts by sending little puffs of smoke wafting into the hive. Smelling smoke the bees instinctively start to drink up the honey they have stored, and all plumped up, they become docile.

This is Concord honey. Bees are feeding on the cornfields across the river, ornamental flowers around the 

Credit Pam Bissonnette / NHPR
Bissonnette shows off a frame to the reporter and executive Chef Trish Taylor.

  hotel, and vegetable gardens all across the city.

“It’s the color of the honey” that tells you what the bees have been gathering, says Bissonnette. “Alfalfa and clover and down on the cape there’s cranberry honey. In Pittsfield I had some hives, and that honey it was pure white. We think that was off a lot of the lilly-pads, the lilly flower.”

This honey is also pesticide-free, which in the age of varroa mites and other bee diseases, means sometimes they have to start from scratch. He explains that none of the three hives survived last winter, after being weakened by disease.

Back down the ladder in the kitchen of the conference center – where workers are slicing cantaloupe for fruit trays – executive chef Trish Taylor trots out their raw, unpasteurized honey for a taste-test against standard, clover honey.

There’s a notable difference, though it’s hard to explain what it is. There’s just more, different flavors in the raw honey and it’s kind of to explain what it is.

It’s Concord honey. And this year, the Marriott hopes to produce enough to supply all of its needs, all year long.

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