Delicate Dance: Bees and Sustainability
At The Chef’s Garden, we don’t ever try to outsmart Mother Nature. Instead, we farm in full accord with her rhythms, a humble participant in the intricate choreography of the seasons—and we acknowledge that honeybees play a pivotal role in this agricultural dance.
The honeybee is in fact the most important pollinator of food around the globe—receiving help from birds, bats and other insects—which is why we’re especially honored to be a place of interest for the honeybee.
We love to watch them in our fields of buckwheat flowers as they buzz about, gathering together the powdered gold that only they can magically spin into buckwheat honey. Bees are a crucial part of sustainable farming, and we welcome them on the farm and at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, grateful for their work and glad for the opportunity to nourish them as they help to pollinate flowering plants and crops.
As we watch the honeybees perform their instinctive ballet moves, we can also watch hundreds of Monarch butterflies as they flit about in waves. We watch them balance on the long stem of the buckwheat flower, their bright orange and contrasting black wings fluttering as they draw out nectar as they sip on Mother Nature’s perfect straw.
Why Are Bees Important?
In one word: pollination.
In two words: food production.
In three words: they are crucial.
According to John Schick, an experienced beekeeper who is our go-to expert on bees, a “good portion of our food wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for pollination.”
A 2019 article from the New York Times echoes that statement in its title, “Without Bees, We Are in Trouble.” Here’s a slightly longer quote from the article: “bees are the lifeblood for our existence. Their pollination allows our plants and food crops to reproduce. Without them we are in trouble.”
What Bees Pollinate
In 2015, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) pointed out that more than $15 billion of crops in the United States are pollinated by bees each year, including “apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa, and almonds.”
And, that’s just a partial list. According to SustainWeb.org, here are more fruits and vegetables that require pollination (and this is still just a partial list): “avocados, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash, and sunflowers for oil, cucumbers, citrus fruit, peaches, kiwis, cherries, cranberries and melons.”
And, OneGreenPlanet.org chimes in to say that the hard-working bee is responsible for the continuation of about one sixth of the flowering plants around the globe, as well as about 400 agricultural plants. Plus, they are the creators of the delicious honey used in so many dishes around the world, with the NRDC estimating honey production to be $150 million annually in the United States alone.
Clearly, honeybees are vital to our ecosystem and agricultural system, and so we naturally want to harness their energy and attention. Having said that, John explains that you can’t really tell a bee what to do. For one thing, they typically only travel from about two to five miles from their hives. And, just like people, they take what they like first. In other words, they won’t necessarily pollinate what doesn’t appeal to them. “Although you can encourage bees to pollinate what you want pollinated,” John explains, “by strategically placing the beehives and moving them appropriately, you definitely can’t make them do what they don’t want to do.”
These preferences are what creates the different varieties of honey and explains why honey from one location won’t necessarily taste like that from another place.
How to Protect the Bees
“It is difficult to understate the impact on the restaurant industry if we don’t save the bees. Restaurants depend on a stable and seasonal supply of vegetables, fruits, and other foods pollinated by bees. The continued loss of bees will hit restaurants, chefs, and their customers especially hard. Imagine going to your favorite restaurant and finding no melons, blueberries, or peaches on the summer menu, or apples and pumpkin in the fall.” (FoodTank.com)
So, here are the people who should want to protect bees: anyone who eats.
As far as how to protect them, the Honeybee Conservancy offers plenty of tips, including:
Plant a bee garden (here’s how) or otherwise grow nectar-rich plants, even if it’s just on a balcony or a street corner.
Avoid the use of harmful pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. They can make the bees want to stay away—and, if they do come in contact with these harmful substances, they can endanger them. Consider putting beneficial insects into your garden instead, including ladybugs and praying mantises.
Don’t forget the trees! Bees get most of their nectar from trees when they bloom. Trees also provide ideal nesting materials for bees.
Make a bee bath. You can fill a shallow bird bath or dish with clean water with stones emerging out of the water. Bees will land on the stones and drink the water as a break from their hard work.
Another way to help protect the bees is by having honeybee hives—and that’s just we do at the Culinary Vegetable Institute. If you aren’t ready to do that, you can support local beekeepers or sponsor a hive.
In 2018, The Culinary Institute of America created an apiary with about 50,000 hives in its New York campus. Juniors and seniors in the Applied Food Studies course raised money for this project and built the hives and will now care for the bees. In other words, “Instead of chef jackets and toques, some students at The Culinary Institute of America will soon be donning white beekeeping suits and hats with mesh face coverings for one of their classes.”
Beekeeping in Full Accord with Nature
We are deeply committed to connecting with our food system and, at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, we nurture the miraculous process of honey production by tucking bee hives into our spruce trees where they can feast on sweet nectar.
Executive Chef Jamie Simpson, who oversees the honey production and harvesting, calls this a “beautiful process,” one where it’s important to pace yourself appropriately.
To learn about beekeeping, Jamie spent time with John Schick, who tends 40 of his own hives. John taught Jamie how to place hives according to the sun and so much more. It took Jamie a year before he felt ready to select bees for the Culinary Vegetable Institute and he still relies on John’s expertise and support.
Bees chosen are an Eastern European breed that can handle Northeast Ohio’s unpredictable climate, able to endure our long, cold winters—and also blessed with an innate ability to self-adjust their work based upon nectar’s availability. The queens were bred in Amish country, already producing larvae by the time Jamie received them, with larvae gently added to hives while still as tiny as microscopic grains of rice.
A queen can lay more than her body weight in eggs daily and, with enough food, she instinctively knows what to do. Our job is to keep the bees, including the all-important queen, as happy and comfortable as possible.
And, now that Jamie has been part of nature’s incredible process, he plans to have a beehive for the rest of his life. “When you are tending bees,” he said, “you can’t think about anything else but that hive. You need to be that focused.”
Sharing Honey with Chefs
Jamie knew that he wanted an artful way to present honey to chefs, and he had a vision in his mind—but, for a while, that’s what it remained. A vision in his mind.
He talked to welders, woodworkers and artists to see how the vision could become a reality, but it wasn’t until he was driving through Amish country that this actually happened. He saw a sign, one that humbly read “Cabinets.” So, he entered that small white building where he saw a young Amish man, paralyzed from the waist down. He was reclining on a rolling bed, stomach side down, with a toolbox under his pillow.
Jamie shared his thought with this man, already confident in his abilities after seeing the incredible pieces of functional art that he had created from a physically challenging position. The duo collaborated to create handcrafted frames that hold about five pounds of honey apiece that chefs can use to artfully display in buffets, pastry cases, cheese carts and more. Each frame contains honey created from the nectar of as many as two million flowers, with the industrious bees putting in approximately 55,000 miles in flight for just that one single frame-full.
Jamie and other chefs at the Culinary Vegetable Institute use this honey in their uniquely creative dishes, as well, including their Beeswax Ice Cream recipe. This recipe is stable at room temperature, delicious and aromatic. Note that it requires ¾ cup of unrefined beeswax that you can get from a local beekeeper.
We have a real passion for sustainability, for leaving the world a better place than how we found it—and we consider the care of bees to be a key component of that philosophy.
You can find more resources about caring for our planet’s bees at:
University of New Hampshire
BuzzAboutBees.net (resources for children)
Friends of the Earth (here are their activities for children)
Act for Bees
There are plenty more bee-saving resources to be found on Google, as well.
Yes, It Takes Two to Tango
This is true in the sense that, without bees, farmers can’t grow the crops people need to eat a healthy, nutritious diet. And, we also like to imagine the chef-farmer relationship as a dance step, one performed on the floor of a chef’s kitchen.
As part of the choreography, Farmer Lee Jones likes to go out into the fields of The Chef’s Garden with visiting chefs, so that they can touch the rich, lake-bottom soil and see the miracles performed by Mother Nature—including through the toil of dedicated honeybees—and then taste just-harvested perfection.
As the other part of the equation, The Chef’s Garden ships farm-fresh produce to the kitchens of chefs, exactly what they need, right when they need it.
If your restaurant team is interested in a farm visit, here is an overview of what typically happens. (Having said that, there really isn’t a “typical” farm visit for chefs, because we tailor your experience so that it’s most meaningful for you and your team!)
In general, the visit starts with a photograph by our sign and an old-fashioned farm welcome. Then, you can meet members of our farming family, watch a video to give you context, and ask whatever questions you have. We’re here to help, to be your personal farmer.
Then, through the rest of the farm tour, you can continue to ask whatever questions you have, knowing that we just love to talk about sustainable, regenerative farming. On your tour, you can:
Start with the seeds: We share some researching methods and seed experimentation so you can see how we plant just what you want and need. We’ll talk about time-tested farming methods that create the most flavorful, farm-fresh vegetables, edible flowers, microgreens, herbs and more.
Enjoy a greenhouse tasting where you treat your tongue to bursts of flavor. As you sample delicious crops that we grow, we’ll provide a bit of background and context, and give you more samples to take to your restaurant.
See what’s currently growing, so you can ask questions of the people who tenderly care for these crops, every day of the year. What you’ll see will depend upon the season.
Watch the care we take when packing produce and see how we thoroughly test for any potential problems before the just-harvested produce gets sent to chefs and restaurants around the globe.
Visit the Culinary Vegetable Institute, where we have our beehives, and where we cater to the creative and educational needs of innovative chefs.
If you’d like to schedule a personal farm visit, please contact your product specialist today!