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For a Hotel Beekeeper, Honey Is Just the Beginning

A wine distributor and sommelier by trade, Noel Patterson, the resident beekeeper at Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson, parlayed his experience with terroir to capture time and place in a bottle. His latest medium? Honey.

In his role, Mr. Patterson harvests honey from hives on the property for spa treatments and for Miraval’s kitchens; educates guests on the role they play in bees’ ecosystems; teaches them how to set up their own backyard beehives; and, with tastings, helps them discover the unique flavors of honey.

He leads a workshop called “Honey: A Sensual Journey,” which teaches guests that, like wine, honey reflects the region where it’s produced. He also talks to guests about the bee population’s dire situation and teaches them how to help contribute to their survival. (Properties like St. Ermin’s Hotel in London and the Mandarin Oriental in Paris and the W in Taipei also have on-site beekeeping.)

Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Patterson.

How were you introduced to beekeeping?

I never intended to be a professional beekeeper, but for my birthday, my girlfriend at the time unexpectedly got me a beehive. She’s a talented organic farmer and built me a hive herself. I have a large property in downtown Tucson, and I grow as much of my own food as I can, but the one thing I was never able to produce myself was a sweetener. I had my veggies and chicken, but not honey.

Beyond honey production, how do bees enhance our travel experience?

Beehives at hotels increase the overall bee population in the area and can play a major role in combating colony collapse. They play an integral role in the development of the food we eat and the natural habitats we explore. Now, more than ever, travelers are concerned with where their food comes from and make a conscious effort to eat organic, locally sourced foods. And bee pollination is key in growing healthy crops without the use of pesticides.

How did you move into the role as the Miraval beekeeper?

I was introduced to Miraval during my time as a wine distributor. Once they discovered my passion for beekeeping, I was invited to speak with the sustainability committee about the problems that bees are encountering. It was during these discussions that we developed the beekeeping program at Miraval. The idea was that I would keep some hives on the property, which related to my wine background. I was supposed to play around with different kinds of honey. But there was a clear interest in the community. The clientele was very engaged, so I started teaching classes on the weekends. As much as I enjoyed my career in wine, I found working with the bees meaningful, enjoyable and an activist activity.

What makes your beekeeping practice sustainable?

The way we keep bees at Miraval is beyond organic. We use natural methods in this chemically intensive industry where a number of viruses, diseases, and mites afflict bees. There’s a chemical to eradicate and prevent every one of these problems. We let the bees make important decisions rather than imposing a structure.

What can we learn from bees?

We live in divided times, and bees are the picture of a harmonious society where the individual lives for the benefit of the whole. There’s a book called “Honeybee Democracy” about how they make decisions about resources, how they’re going to raise a new queen if they’re going to find a new home. There are many parts of that that are analogous to humans.

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