Liquid gold: Home-made honey at the Four In Hand in Paddington. Photo: Steven Siewert
It all begins calmly enough. Our team leaders, Bees in the City founder Cate Burton and her business partner, veteran beekeeper Bruce White, aren't even wearing protective gear.
"Bees aren't interested in people," says Burton, who also goes by the name of her beeswax-candle-making business, Queen B.
Queen of the crop: honey produced on-site accompanies a lemon verbena and sorrel juice dessert at the Four in Hand restaurant. Photo: Steven Siewert
"There's absolutely nothing to worry about. Look at Brett – he's allergic to bees and he's not nervous at all."
We are gathered on the rooftop of the Four in Hand pub in Paddington to harvest the honey from the hive Burton and White set up a year ago. A motley crew comprising a beekeeper, a candle maker, three chefs and a journalist, our collective beekeeping expertise ranges from zero (my only significant encounter with bees up to this point being hearing the terrified screams of my bare-footed friend who stepped on one when we were seven years old) to hero (White was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2011 for his service to the Australian beekeeping industry).
Unsure of how much trust to place in a woman whose moniker implies that she may, in fact, be on the side of the 70,000 bees whose honey we are about to steal, I turn to Four in Hand chef Brett Cameron.
Four in Hand owner and chef Colin Fassnidge harvests honey from the restaurant's rooftop hive. Photo: Steven Siewert
"The first time I came out here I was a bit freaked out but now it's nothing," he says, shrugging beneath his protective veil.
Four in Hand owner and chef Colin Fassnidge is similarly nonchalant.
"We've got three chefs who are allergic [to bees] and they all come up," Fassnidge says.
Unique: "The flavour profile of the raw honey you get from your own hive is completely different to any commercial product you can buy." Photo: Steven Siewert
"Once they're all over you and you realise they're not doing anything, you stop worrying about it."
By the end of the exercise, which takes less than 40 minutes, Fassnidge has been stung four times, including on his inner thigh "right near the vitals", as he describes it. Even Queen B is stung on the arm while we are talking in the restaurant downstairs.
"Well, they are wild animals," Fassnidge says later, as we debrief over a cup of tea. "You forget that sometimes."
Value of pollination
The gross value of production of the Australian honeybee industry is $80 million, which may seem like a paltry figure compared with industry heavyweights such as meat or dairy, which produce billion of dollars worth of commodities.
However, the true worth of apiary in Australia is more accurately reflected in the value of plant pollination to agriculture in general, which is estimated at a whopping $4 billion to $6 billion annually, according to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.
To put that in a foodie context, about one in every three mouthfuls of food consumed in Australia comes from the aid of pollination by honeybees.
"Bees roam up to five kilometres from the hive to collect pollen and water, and the taste of the honey produced by each hive depends on the types of forage in the area," says White, a retired apiary officer who worked for 40 years for the NSW Department of Agriculture.
A three-storey hive will yield more than 50 kilograms of honey a year, he says.
White and Burton work together at Bees in the City, which aims to promote urban beekeeping. Burton says Sydney is late to the party when it comes to rooftop hives, which have taken cities such as Paris, London and New York by storm (or swarm, rather).
"It's a global thing. Everyone's interested in it," Burton says.
"There's been a beehive on top of the Paris Opera for 30 years. There's a beehive on top of the Louvre. They've got beehives on top of the Fortnum & Mason [in central London] with live bee cams . . . It's fantastic."
It might seem counter-intuitive but cities are perfect for beekeeping, Burton says.
"Urban bees tend to do better than country bees because people have so many exotic trees and flowers in their gardens, so there's always something flowering in the city," she says.
"In the country most of the land is used for farming, which means forage tends to be less diverse."
In the cities however, even hives within a few kilometres of one another can produce honey with distinctly different tastes. The honey Burton harvests from hives in Elizabeth Bay, for example, is sweet and floral, whereas the honey from Fassnidge's hives in Paddington – less than two kilometres away – has a richer, earthier flavour.
Doug Purdie, who splits his days between a marketing job and his real love, the Urban Beehive business, says interest in urban beekeeping has leapt significantly in recent years.
"When I started [three years ago], there were no hives on restaurants or cafes. There were in Melbourne but as far as I know, the first in Sydney was the one we put on the Swissotel," he says.
Today, Purdie and his business partner manage 55 hives in Sydney, including at Cornersmith cafe in Marrickville, Chez Dee in Potts Point, Wine Library in Woollahra and Berta in the city.
"It's becoming the new black," Purdie says. "I always joke that I'm a hipster without a moustache and beard because I keep bees."
Unique, local, sustainable
Rising interest in local, sustainable and ethical produce is resulting in more and more restaurants and cafes growing their own food.
"The flavour profile of the raw honey you get from your own hive is completely different to any commercial product you can buy . . . and it's difficult to get more local than your own rooftop," Purdie says.
"As far as a green initiative for a restaurant or cafe, it's pretty hard to beat a beehive."
Matthew Horton from Cornersmith cafe says the beehive was one of the first things set up when the eatery opened almost 18 months ago.
"It's part of our philosophy. We're passionate about sustainability and local, seasonal, produce," he says. "[Our honey] is a bit more floral than the usual dark, almost forest honey we get here . . . We're a bit proud of it."
James Hird, a co-owner of Buzo and the Wine Library, uses the honey harvested from the restaurant's hive in its food or trades it with customers for produce they have grown themselves.
"We try as much as possible to have local produce on the menu," he says. "We tried to find a local dairy; we try to find local growers for each season; and we have a network of people that bring us things they grow."
Eighteen months since installing the hive, Hird is so happy with his bees he's planning to set up another in spring.
"You start to see over a year how each batch [of honey] is different because of what's in bloom in the neighbourhood," he says. "It's unique. It really expresses, for want of a better word, 'terroir'."
For Fassnidge, keeping bees is more about education than food production.
"It's not to sustain the restaurant. It's more to show the chefs and kids where produce comes from," says the Dublin-born father of two.
Nonetheless, 'The Four's rooftop honey does appear on the restaurant's menu and the honeycomb frame, brought dripping to the table for the fresh honey to be scooped and placed beside the lemon verbena and sorrel juice dessert ($16), is quite the spectacle.
To buy Urban Beehive honey visit theurbanbeehive.com.au/stockists.cfm.