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The Stingby Dan Oko | Houston magazine | July 5, 2012
On a cold and rainy dawn one Saturday in the spring, a compact black pickup with a covered bed rolled into the deserted parking lot of Haven (2502 Algerian Way, 713.581.6101), the popular Upper Kirby restaurant. Two hooded men hopped out, keeping their faces turned from the nearby security camera. A grainy black-and-white video shows them shifting a 3-foot-tall beehive owned by the restaurant, weighing about 500 pounds and dripping with honey, into the back of the truck.
The bee rustlers were long gone by the time Haven Executive Chef Randy Evans arrived. A burly blond Houston native who has helped popularize local farm-to-table cooking, Evans had watched excitedly for months as the bees pollinated sweet Thai basil plants and citrus trees nearby. Now he would never know if the honey they produced would be imbued with fresh and unique flavors as he’d imagined.
The heist of the Haven hive—or, perhaps more cheekily put, The Sting—made national news, and kept social-media scribes entertained for weeks. But Evans—who uses honey to sweeten ice cream and brine poultry, and as a glaze for duck and in a tangy gastrique for quail—wasn’t amused.
“There’re only two types of people that steal bees,” says the chef, whose bartenders also mix honey into cocktails such as the Tequila Daisy, a light margarita. “Punk-ass kids and other beekeepers.”
It’s hard to know just what the culprits, who at press time haven’t been apprehended, had in mind. But they do illustrate, however darkly, the point that demand for locally made honey has never been higher in Houston, particularly among chefs and bartenders. (How’s that for making the best of a sticky situation?)
And there are increasingly ample sources for the liquid gold. The number of amateur apiarists in the region has tripled in just two years, according to the Houston Beekeepers Association, which mirrors a national trend highlighted by healthy-food-focused first lady Michelle Obama’s decision to install a beehive on the grounds of the White House. H-Town, especially—with two long growing seasons, an abundance of backyard gardens and plenty of wildflowers—is an ideal city for urban beekeeping.
Local celeb bartender Bobby Heugel picks up honey from his neighbors for specialty cocktails at Anvil (1424 Westheimer Rd., 713.523.1622), while veteran chef Ryan Pera at Revival Market (550 Heights Blvd., 713.880.8463)—the popular Heights butcher, grocer and purveyor of home-style charcuterie—snaps up artisanal, unpasteurized H-Town honey for an array of prepared foods and sauces. “We like the idea of locally sourcing any ingredients we can,” says Pera. “Knowing it comes from close to home, that’s what’s important to us.”
Elsewhere in the Heights, it’s also supremely important to locavore chef Jaime Zelko of 2-year-old Zelko Bistro (705 E. 11th St., 713.880.8691) and her chemist wife Dalia, who have launched their own ambitious beekeeping operation. On one recent afternoon, in fact, a visitor finds Dalia hard at work, keeping bees at one of the more than 70 backyard apiaries in the neighborhood that they’ve cobbled together into a network they call the Heights Honey Bee Project.
The stylish brunette with striking green eyes dons her white beekeeper’s jacket and mesh head gear, and sparks a sweet-smelling mixture of sage and sandalwood in her “smoker,” a handheld tin bellows-type device that’s used to sedate bees with bursts of warm smoke. With a considerable buzz as her soundtrack, she moves slowly and speaks in a soothing voice so as not to upset the bees as she checks the hives, careful not to crush any workers as she lifts the box tops and pokes at the honeycomb.
The bees grow agitated, but after a few puffs from the smoker, they cease their kamikaze attacks. “Such fascinating animals,” muses Dalia. “They have memory. They establish relationships. They can see in color.” And, of course, they produce honey.
Jaime indeed uses some of the sweet stuff at her restaurant, which occupies a smartly remodeled 1920s bungalow. It gets drizzled over berries for brunch, and, at dinnertime, on plates of panko-crusted crabcakes with red chili sauce; raw honeycomb glistens on the cheese plate. But the Project is really more an homage to the bees themselves, and their role in a healthy ecosystem.
Besides the fact that eating local honey is believed to moderate pollen-related allergies, bees are said to pollinate more than $550 million worth of Texas crops, even as bee populations shrink worldwide due to disease and pesticides. “All of our heart, sweat and labor is going into this,” says Jaime. “The bees inspire me. They serve others. They maintain the hive because that’s how you maintain the brood. It’s just so cool.”
The Zelkos harvest honey from each hive every other month, packaging and selling various vintages that range in appearance from buttery ambers to earthy, bark-like browns. “We can’t keep it on the shelves,” says the chef. Through the Project, the couple also relocates unwanted hives from throughout the region.
Meanwhile, back at the scene of the crime, a new hive has been relocated to Haven, where chef Evans is back in the bee biz—and once again explaining why local ingredients are so important.
“Start with the whole idea of you are what you eat,” he says. “Then honey is what the bees eat.
“It’s all about provenance,” he adds. “This is not a product that comes from a box or a bottle.”