On a rainy day, the roof of the W Hotel is littered with the bodies of bees. Their wings soggy and their little feet in the air, they lie like the fallen soldiers that they are amid the 10 beehives that constitute the hotel’s apiary, housing about a million bees — give or take the hundred or so lying in rain puddles.
Any average sunny spring Austin day would find bees buzzing merrily around these hives, making occasional trips to a nearby bucket topped with floating wine corks for them to land on, where they sip fruit smoothies created specially to whet their appetites for honey-making.
In the rain, though, “inside each hive is a big ball of bees around the queen, beating their wings to raise her body temperature,” says beekeeper Walter Schumacher. “In inclement weather, they send out scouts every 15 to 20 minutes, because water is very detrimental to bees.”
If the scouts don’t come back, the rest of the bees are supposed to stay put. That’s what they’re doing on this particular day, because bees always do what they’re supposed to do.
But why are bees living up on the 37th-floor roof of the W Hotel?
“We weren’t necessarily looking to have an apiary,” says Beau Armstrong, CEO of the hotel’s development company, Stratus Properties. Armstrong says a couple of City Council aides introduced him to Schumacher, he liked the guy — “He’s so passionate about bees” — and bees seemed to fit nicely with the hotel’s sustainability efforts.
Schumacher has been in the bee biz for about seven years, throwing himself into it after his Alice’s Restaurant in Niederwald closed. He founded Central Texas Bee Rescue, which removes hives from people’s homes, warehouses and other places where bees should not be. He did this for profit until 2011, but now his Bee Rescue is a nonprofit agency. That means after he removes your bees, he gives you a bill for a suggested donation (maybe $100 for three hours’ work), but if you can’t pay any or all of it, that’s OK.
“If they have it, they have it. If they don’t, they don’t,” Schumacher says. “We’re going to get them anyway because if we don’t, somebody’s going to kill them, and that’s not good for my babies.” Happily, enough clients come up with a large donation for his services (as does the W Hotel) that he can afford to retain nonprofit status.
When Schumacher finds a wayward swarm, he says, he first determines whether the queen is old, lazy or mean by looking at the shape of the egg cells she lays. If the cells are sloppy, she’s either old or careless.
“If she’s mean,” he says, “all of her bees are mean, and they sting you, so they let us know.”
If the queen falls into one of those categories, Schumacher replaces it with a new, cultivated queen who keeps her hive orderly and her bees in a good mood. Schumacher keeps hives of these pleasant bees out at a ranch at Circle C, and some bees from those hives now inhabit the roof of the W.
The bees are fed from the aforementioned bucket, ingesting a smoothie-like mixture of organic fruit — berries, citrus and melons. The W has plans for rooftop gardens to further amuse the bees. An herb garden should be in place soon. By the end of this month or early June, Schumacher says, the bees should be ready to make some honey.
The combs will be taken down to a trailer in front of the W, where the honey will be spun out into jars as people watch. Some of the honey will find its way into food and cocktails at the W, and some will be used in a milk-and-honey spa treatment. Small jars of honey will be offered in the mini-bars in rooms, as well.
“My idea is to give our guests a taste of Austin,” says the W’s forager (food and beverage manager) Valerie Broussard.
The bees are expected to produce 100 pounds to 200 pounds a year, but Schumacher hastens to note that these bees will be alternated every couple of months with other bees from the Circle C hive, “so we’re not forcing the bees to work chain-gang style.”
Thus, the bees will live happily ever after … except for the scouts that drown in the rain.
Bee-list party at the W Hotel
When: 6:30 p.m. June 13
Where: Trace restaurant patio and porch
What: Free party open to the public. Samples of W Austin cocktails and food featuring honey from the apiary will be available. Guests are encouraged to wear black and yellow.