Neighborhood Nectar: Bee Local Harvests Flavors Across the City

Damian Magista bounds up a slightly askew ten-foot wooden ladder speckled with moss. He steadies the top as I follow, clinging to each rung. Magista balances the next ladder (an intimidating 20 feet tall) to climb toward the third-floor rooftop of Matchbox Lounge, a neighborhood bar with a locavore bent on southeast Division. He looks down and asks: “Are you ready to meet the ladies?”

The ladies are a hive of Apis Mellifera—more commonly known as honey bees. The rooftop hive, which houses about 60,000 bees at the height of summer, boasts a birds-eye view of Pok Pok to the left and bursting pink cherry blossoms to the right.

“The blossoms are good early forage for them,” says Magista, an urban beekeeper and the founder of Bee Local, a producer of artisan neighborhood honey. The one-year-old rooftop hive is the only hive Magista manages that requires two ladders to reach.

The hive box is a simple rectangle the size of an Old World wooden wine crate. Tiny specks of yellow swirl and dart around the box. “See how they are circling around?” Magista asks. The bees are taking first flights, he explains. The orientation flights begin in little circles and then grow as the bees loop, seeking sunshine and landmarks.

“These ladies are visiting anybody with a garden,” says Magista. “They are pollinating our neighborhoods.” The activity is temperature dependent, and in July, says Magista, you can hear them buzzing in unison. “It reminds me of a very tiny, very busy airport.”

If the temperature is under 52 degrees, the bees will stay in the hive. Inside a healthy hive, no matter how cold or hot it is outside, bees will maintain a temperature of 92 degrees, plus or minus two degrees, year round. Magista shares trivia easily, and pauses only to wax poetic over the taste of honey.

“We pulled a little honey to taste, and it was amazing,” says Magista. He widens his eyes as he describes the flavor. “Almost nutty—like a chestnut with notes of blackberry,” he says. In honor of the hive, Matchbox Lounge serves a splash of the honey in a cocktail called the Bees Knees (recipe here).

Magista has been enthusiastic about bees ever since his neighbor first gave him a hive in 2009. He’s an active member of the Portland Urban Beekeeper group and a mentor for the Oregon Master Beekeeping Program. He loves any moment he can teach about Apis Mellifera.

As his passion evolved, Magista was able to coax a few friends into hosting hives in their own backyards. When he went to harvest honey from a friend in the Brooklyn neighborhood, he noticed that the honey was completely different in color and taste from the honey from his backyard in South Tabor. “It dawned on me, of course, the forage is different,” says Magista.

“Honey from one neighborhood tastes completely different than honey from another,” he explains. The flowers and forage in a particular area dictate the taste and nuances. Honeybees typically forage for nectar within a two-to-four-mile radius—the more diverse the forage is for the bees, the more complex the flavor of the honey.

The revelation that hyper-local honey reflects a taste of place, similar to the notion of terroir in wine, led Magista to harvest and jar microbatches of neighborhood honey from various hives in the Mt. Tabor, Laurelhurst, Powellhurst and Brooklyn neighborhoods, as well as Cameron Winery in Dundee.

Bee Local launched in January with support from a $5,000 Kickstarter campaign. Last year, the company grew to manage around 20 hives and produced an estimated 500 pounds of honey.

“One of the wonderful things about beekeeping in the city is building community and the opportunity for education.”

Magista expanded the Bee Local concept to San Francisco and Eugene this spring. Other projects in the works include establishing microapiaries with Salt & Straw, Imperial by Vitaly Paley, New Seasons Markets and the Joel Palmer House in Dayton. This spring, Bee Local won the 2013 Edible Portland Local Hero Award for Food Artisan.

“One of the wonderful things about beekeeping in the city is building community and the opportunity for education,” says Magista. When Magista gets a call to capture a swarm of bees in a neighborhood, the beekeeper dons his white suit with a hat and veil. “Inevitably people are watching, and then the questions start coming,” says Magista.

One common query: Aren’t you scared of them? That’s your teaching moment, he says, when you are able to connect with people. “They move from having that fear—which we all do—to understanding.”

A prevalent concern he often fields relates to the state of honey bees. Alarming headlines about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which honey bees suddenly disappear or die, are prominent nationwide. People want to know, says Magista, what can I do in my neighborhood or my yard to make a difference?

He suggests not using pesticides, fungicides or herbicides on your property. Plant native flowering plant species, provide homes for bumblebees and solitary pollinators, and consider beekeeping.

There is so much to learn from the honey bee, Magista believes. “Just watching how orderly they are is really amazing. There is a specific reason they do each and every thing, and that’s to benefit the entire colony,” he says. One of the more significant takeaways, though, is the mindset you have to get into when working with bees, Magista adds.

“Before I work a hive, I’ll stop and think exactly what I’m going to do, every movement. It’s very meditative—you want to move slowly, with purpose,” says Magista. It’s a great lesson, he muses. “How important it is to just slow it down.”

Edible Portland, Summer 2013