The Bees Knees

Actually, I don’t know if bees even have knees, but it’s a good title for this post.

There’s a group called the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, or CUESA. They put on the Farmers Markets in San Francisco, and offer classes and events as well. Granddaughter Demi found an event we couldn’t miss–urban beekeeping, and the venue was the Fairmont Hotel, which keeps bees to make their own honey and pollinate the flowers on their rooftop garden, where they grow items for their own kitchens, as well.

In a stroke of luck, we found free on-street parking right on top of Nob Hill, and entered the beautiful shrine to old San Francisco that is the Fairmont.

Events started with a cooking demonstration by J. W. Foster, executive chef of the Fairmont. He made a bruschetta with drained ricotta cheese, lots of honey and roasted plums. I’ll be serving it and claiming I invented it.

Chef Foster prepares the ricotta/honey spread for the bruschetta.

Chef is the man responsible for the beehives. The Fairmont website has an article about the bees and the garden which begins:

In June 2010, The Fairmont San Francisco’s Executive Chef jW Foster, in partnership with Marshall’s Farm, installed honey beehives in the hotel’s culinary garden in order to help support the bee population, which has decreased in number by 90 percent since the 1980s.

They take this stuff seriously–it isn’t just a publicity stunt. The Fairmont clearly believes in giving back to the community and trying to improve their neighborhood and their world.

There is also a honey beer, brewed specially for the Fairmont.

Honey beer, and a small mascot.


I don’t drink enough to have a valid opinion, but I had a taste anyway. It wasn’t sweet, it tasted like beer. Color me confused.


Now for the good stuff. All my life I’ve wanted to put on a bee suit with the hood and heavy cloth and go look at bees. This was my chance–we went out to the garden and got suited up. Miraculously, they had a suit big enough for me. No, you don’t get to see–there’s a reason I’m the guy who takes the pictures.

Gail’s daughter Kate and husband Brad, enjoying the bee suits.


Gail the apiarist.


I suspect that these honeybees are really pretty docile and safe–the beekeeper who went out with us didn’t bother with a bee suit, or gloves. Still, it felt very secure to be in the proper attire.

Granddaughter Demi holding a frame of honeycomb. A hive is composed of about 8 of these.


Close up of the comb–the white things in the cells are larva developing into bees.


Gail the beekeeper


The big one is the queen. Notice the bare finger–the expert wasn’t afraid to work without gloves. That is most definitely NOT my finger.


The raised beds of the garden.


There was honey tasting, chatting with the chef, tasting of the beer, but in truth after we wriggled out of the bee suits we were ready to hit the trail–I don’t see us setting up a hive or three around here, so this was an adventure much more than an educational event for us. Nonetheless, I felt like I learned something about the little fuzzy fliers and had a great time in the process.




After the adventure, we wanted to get a bite to eat and hadn’t been to the Top of the Mark in decades, so we dashed across the street and up to the 18th floor. It’s smaller than I remember, and less fancy, but it’s still a quintessential San Francisco location, like Tommy’s Joynt or the Tadich Grill.

The menu is “light dining”; there were 6 of us and we ordered three platters–the mezze, cold middle-eastern dips and delicacies, a charcuterie plate with paté, salami, cured duck, prosciutto, etc. , and a hot spinach and cheese dip. The breads served with the platters were all unique and excellent, the portions were sufficient and we were fairly well pleased with what might be called a heavy snack.

The cool part was when the band started to play 40’s music and people started to dance. These were clearly locals who come every week–the knew what they were doing, were dressed to the teeth and we had as much fun watching as they did dancing. One couple looked to be in their very late 70’s and were smooth and elegant. Gail asked the woman how long they had been dancing together and was told “a very, very, very, very long time.” Then the woman kissed Gail. It was sweet.

Cutting a rug at the Top of the Mark


These two were great–they are not a couple, the woman came with another guy, the man came by himself, dressed in a white dinner jacket and black/white spectator shoes. They both seem to be regulars who do this often.

We had a great time–the Top of the Mark is pretty old fashioned, but we got to watch the fog come in, and then watched it lift and the Bay Bridge came into view. It was a pretty perfect evening. Just the bees knees.


3 thoughts on “The Bees Knees

  1. Chris,

    Christina and I raised Bees in San Francisco for 10 years. In our best year we harvested over 150 pounds of Honey. We stopped when our son was born to avoid him crawling in the grass and getting stung.

    It was fun and we loved the honey, which won a prise for best wildflower honey in SF

  2. When I headed up to the roof a few days after The Chronicle’s honey tasting – during which chefs, beekeepers and honey connoisseurs gathered at the Food & Wine test kitchen to taste and discuss more than 10 local varieties, including the first batch of our own rooftop honey – I came upon two colleagues in full bee suits, trying to divert a mini-swarm of bees from dive-bombing the air conditioning vent.

  3. I had made the mistake the previous week of ordering a bag of chips and a Diet Coke in the “Caffe” in the Fairmont’s basement, all of which cost me $4.50. Only Amtrak and the movie theater have worse deals. So I figured I could probably afford only one drink at this place. As it turned out, I could only afford half of one drink, so I just got a club soda. I perused the menu though, because I’m a bit of an expert on such matters, and my readership has come to expect nothing less from me — meaning you are tired of me giving you less. So here you go: There was a drink called Some Like It Hot, with tequila and serrano pepper, and one called Marshall ‘s Farm Honey Old Fashioned. Upon further research I found that the Fairmont uses its own honey, which I assumed was made somewhere in Sonoma or something. Then I found out that the honey was produced right there, in the hotel. By its own count, there are over 100,000 bees on the premises. They are housed in the garden outside, but still, damn. What an amazing idea: Gather thousands of swarming insects in a place that caters to the same number of guests. It was so bizarre that I was beginning to respect the Smart Casuals who run the Fairmont. It was as if Chuck Palahniuk had designed a luxury hotel.

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