By Terry Trucco
In a city known for lavish rooftop amenities, from lounges to pools, the roof of the Intercontinental New York Barclay is neither the tallest nor the chicest. But it’s got buzz.
In June, a fleet of wooden planters arrived, and before long, a small-scale urban garden brimming with herbs, fruit and flowers bloomed atop the roof’s southeast corner (the plants enjoy a spectacular view of the Chrysler building). And in mid August, the bees swarmed in, housed in four wooden hives, each the size of an old tube TV set and populated by 70,000 to 80,000 tiny bugs.
“We’re looking forward to serving our own honey at our breakfast buffet,” says Serge Devesa, executive chef at the hotel, standing serenely beside a hive. In his white chef’s coat, the French-born chef could be a beekeeper, and the bees steered clear of him. They left me alone, too, though that was probably because, unlike Devesa, I avoided them.
The bees and their 14-story-high garden are part of the 85-year-old hotel’s efforts to go greener. Last winter the Barclay ramped up its environment-friendly bona fides becoming one of New York’s first hotels to switch to super-clean wind power. Besides promoting recycling and composting, the hotel redoubled its efforts to serve organic and local food.
It’s hard to get more local than the roof. “When I want basil, I come up here and cut it,” says
Devesa, gazing fondly at a planter of outrageously healthy looking greens. Chives, thyme, lavender, chili peppers, lettuce, mesclun and cherry tomatoes poke out of neighboring planters not far from an enormous water tower.
It’s not yet certain that the beets and carrots planted not far from the garden’s latest newcomer — a scarecrow straight out of The Wizard of Oz — will survive. But mint is thriving. “This will go to the bar for mojitos,” he says, snipping a sprig before turning proudly to a planter bursting with silvery sage. “We’ll dry this and use it at Thanksgiving.”
At the sight of rosemary bursting from a planter Devesa, who learned to cook in Marseille and Provence, grows rhapsodic. “This is my kitchen! I use it in everything,” he says.
As befits a 685-room hotel, the roof is more pragmatic than poetic, scattered with air-conditioning systems, generators and other heavy-duty hotel equipment, and it sprawls.
“We want the bees to work to get to the plants,” the chef says, striding to the opposite end of the roof where the hives reside, still anchored to the shipping palettes that steadied them successfully during Hurricane Irene. Besides the Barclay’s 30-plus plants, the bees can shop the pollen and nectar blooming on nearby roof gardens, including those at the Benjamin Hotel and the new Hyatt 48Lex. Adventurous bees can zoom up to Central Park, though given the local bounty most probably stay near the hotel.
Indeed, bees can fly as far as 17 kilometers, or just over 10 miles, though most stick within a 1
½ to two mile radius of home, says James Fisher, the veteran beekeeper who installed the hives and taught Devesa and his team how to care for the bees without getting stung.
New York may not seem an obvious land of milk and honey, but urban beekeeping is on the rise, in part due to the environmental benefits of roof gardens. Sedum, a succulent roof garden plant used to absorb water, needs bees to help pollinate its seed. Long considered a health hazard, beekeeping wasn’t legalized in New York City until March of last year.
Still, New York City bee aficionados boast a proud, if at times clandestine, history. New York City Beekeeping, a 1,200-member association of beekeepers and bee aficionados, dates from 2006. “There was even a beekeeping shop in Manhattan until World War II,” Fisher says.
Bees don’t like to fly over water, and they don’t like flying in wind, which makes Manhattan an ideal, if unexpected, breeding ground. “Our beehives are relatively disease and pest free,” says Fisher, noting that scientists have used New York bees in studies. “We’ve got ‘control group’ bees.”
So far, the bees seem content with their digs atop the Barclay. Fisher expects the hive population will drop to between 30,000 and 40,000 during winter when the queen lays fewer eggs and nectar-rich flowers disappear. (Hotel staffers will feed the bees a mix of honey, water and pollen supplement if necessary.) The Barclay’s garden will go dormant during winter as well.
But come next spring, Devesa expects to resume rooftop harvests. It can’t hurt that Chris Greene, an aptly named hotel engineer who helps out with the garden, has a knack with plants. As we climbed down from the roof, we passed an enormous tree near a window. Greene planted it 12 years ago from an avocado pit.