Food and Drink


The Rooftop Bee Keepers

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Melbourne City Rooftop Honey, better known as Rooftop Bees, has been getting a lot of buzz lately. Vanessa Kwiatkowski and Mat Lumalasi are the people behind this initiative bringing bees and their sweet, sweet honey back to the rooftops of Melbourne. It works like this: Vanessa and Mat maintain hives for cafes and restaurants around Melbourne, who then get to use their own, fresh-off-the-hive honey.

I think it’s a great idea, and when Vanessa suggests I come along to see how the honey is harvested it’s an offer I can’t refuse. I met the beekeeping couple outside Carlton’s La Luna Cafe, where they were suiting up outside their trusty Landrover. Mat was loading up the smoker with ironbark when a curious onlooker comes by to have a chat. Vanessa explains it happens all the time. “Once people see us in the suits, they either think we’re exterminators or they like bees. Either way they come over for a chat”.

Just as well these two like to chat, especially about bees. I quickly learn that Europe, with its high-density living, has a strong culture of urban hives while New Yorker’s walked on the wild-side in the 1970s with illegal, indie hives. Today Australia’s bee population is threatened by the Varroa Mitte virus, which is why Rooftop Bees is doing what it does.

And they’re doing very well. Over 25 cafes including Golden Fields in St. Kilda, Pope Joan in East Brunswick and Trunk in the CBD are part of the project, and it’s continuing to grow. Mat says there are differences between honey from suburb to suburb. “The honey from Alphington is lighter and sweeter than in Carlton, because of the Yellowbox’s up there by the Yarra. Down in Carlton the bees go for the Redgums by the Merri Creek. The honey also changes throughout the season, as different flowers come into bloom.”

It’s all making me feel like Yogi B. Bear and suddenly I’m hankering for the sweet stuff. I clumsily put on my white suit and feel pretty cool. Vanessa tells me there aren’t any extra gloves but I shrug nonchalantly, I’ve got pockets.

Putting on the hot, bulky suit and climbing the ladder to La Luna’s rooftop, I feel like some honey-crazed astronaut on a mission to save to world from well…a lack of honey. As we clamber on the roof a few bees are hanging about, ducking into three innocent looking boxes. These are the hives, home to some 40 000 bees (and stings). Vanessa and Mat approach while I keep a healthy distance.

The lids come off a flurry of activity ensues. Hundreds of bees tend the honeycomb while others flap around to see who turned on the lights on. Mat’s happy with the honey output, this is the first time they’ve checked the hive since winter and it’s thriving. Vanessa starts taking out the slides of honeycomb and gently placing them in a bucket.

What strikes me is how tenderly she talks about (and to) the bees, just like their her mates. As the honeycomb comes off a few bees get stuck in the honey, while others inadvertently get squished in the process. Every time this happens Vanessa is distraught, taking care to do as little damage as possible. It’s touching. The sun is shining, the honey smells great and I’m feeling pretty good about things. Then the bees turn.

Mat cracks opens the second hive and suddenly the vibe changes. This hive is angry, and the buzz of a thousand bees rattles through the rooftop. Suddenly the air is literally swarming with bees, and that puny smoke machine seems a paltry defense. The little blighters start dive bombing my suit and face mask. I quickly stop taking pics and thrust my hands in my pockets. Mat warns me that swatting at the bees “will just make them go off” so I stand there sanguinely. Can bees smell fear?

Ignoring my theatrics, Mat and Vanessa go about their business when suddenly I feel a white hot stinging just above my ear. I panic as I realise a bees broken through my Maginot Line and I’m vulnerable. I also remember I’ve never been stung by a bee and how do I know if I’m allergic? Am I liable to faint and fall off the roof? Will my head drop off? I decide to retreat and edge back down the ladder, a defeated astronaut with no honey.

It turns out I’m not allergic to bees and live to tell the tale (more than can be said of the bee that stung me). Vanessa and Mat finish harvesting their honey and afterwards, over an ice-pack and some anti-inflammatories, we debrief in the cafe. It turns out Mat has been stung a few times on the chin, but is good humoured about it. He tells me that normally the bees are well behaved, but sometimes they’re a little agro. He also confides that if the bees really want to, they’ll get through the suit. I’m glad I didn’t know that before I went up the ladder.

I’ve had an experience, but am in no hurry to go back to the hives. By contrast Vanessa and Mat are in great spirits, happy that the bees and honey are thriving. Vanessa tells me “we get caught up in the whole cafe and foodie thing, but for us, it’s all about the bees.” I admire their passion, and their handiwork. The next time I have honey on my crumpets, it’ll taste twice as sweet.

To find out more about Rooftop bees visit:
Follow them on Twitter at @rooftopbees

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