A swirl of honeybees slow dance in the morning sunlight as beekeeper Damian Magista methodically steers a smoker around a cluster of wooden bee boxes on the rooftop of Hotel Lucia in downtown Portland. The backdrop view enchants: city skyline, sprawling bridges and the snowcapped peak of Mt. Hood.
“I got my first hive from my neighbor in 2006,” says Magista, who, in lieu of a typical head-to-toe white bee suit, wears jeans and a slate-gray T-shirt that reads “Keep Bees or Die.”
“I put it in my backyard, and the bees tumbled out and started doing orientation flights, and I sat there and watched them all day.” He began studying with the Oregon Master Beekeeper Program and reading about honeybees (Apis mellifera) voraciously. “I just fell in love with them.”
Magista leans into one of the hives, expertly easing what looks like a spatula between the lid and box. The instrument is called a J-hook and is used for everything from removing honey frames from the boxes to cutting out honeycomb. Once the lid pops up, he carefully slides a bee-quilted frame from the box.
He pauses and admires the hive at work. Beautiful amber-hued honeycomb glistens in sunrays. He dips his finger in for a taste. While some bees alight to the sky, most remain on the frame, side-by-side like a winged mosaic, buzzing, humming, chanting in their own language.
“Over time you learn to read their sound and the way they move,” says Magista. He likens working the hives to “becoming one with the bees.” Next, imagine meditation in motion. That’s Magista as he glides to inspect a second hive, his movement bringing to mind the ancient practice of tai chi.
If he accidentally squashes one bee, it will release an alarm pheromone, and that upsets the balance of the hive. As a result, each action is considered, orchestrated, eloquent. “One of the reasons I have a passion for this is that when you are working with bees, it forces you to slow down, to have purpose and really think about what you are doing,” he says.
When Magista is in the zone, bees cresting around him, he looks like a surfer who’s caught a wave. Nothing else exists. “It’s a really beautiful, meditative feeling,” he says.
The Terroir of Honey
Taste of place led Magista to launch Bee Local in 2011. After establishing hives in different Portland neighborhoods, Magista noticed remarkably different flavor profiles in each honey; for example, blackberry notes in honey from the Willamette Valley, floral flavors from a rooftop hive near a rose garden. “That’s because bees forage within a one- or two-mile radius,” he explains.
Whatever plants the bees visit are reflected in the flavor, texture and color of the honey. Like wine, honey expresses a sense of place. This inspired the founding tenet of Bee Local: Capture the terroir of a specific place. “We want to taste this land around us,” he says.
His pursuit of micro-batch, place-based honeys has taken the beekeeper beyond Portland, and he now manages hives in 10 different locations, including the high desert of Eastern Oregon and Netarts Bay on the Coast.
Along the way, Magista has cultivated a honey tribe that ranges from chefs to brewers, and he credits the local culinary community for the exponential growth of Bee Local.
“I think living in Portland, and Oregon in general, has been critical to the success of Bee Local in that we are ingrained with this DIY culture,” he says.
“We are a pioneer state; this is what we do. We create and embrace and elevate each other here.”
Early supporters include chef Vitaly Paley, who uses the honey in all three of his Portland restaurants — from a drizzle on the signature fried-chicken dish at the Imperial to the popular Harlequin cocktail (gin, Aperol, honey, lemon and Chandon sparkling rosé). On some late afternoons, you can spy Magista in the restaurant kitchen with the chef, both dipping tastings spoons into a gold-filled vat simply labeled: Rooftop Honey.
In August 2014, Bee Local teamed with Jacobsen Salt Co., a producer of artisan salts harvested from the waters of the Pacific Northwest, to open a shared destination headquarters and tasting room. Here you can find ever-expanding collaborations like smoked honey (created with the help of chef B.J. Smith of Portland’s Smokehouse 21) and honey-wheat ale from Coalition Brewing. (Read our story on the tasting room and other Portland-makers.)
Bees as Cocktail Conversation
Near the end of day on Sauvie Island, Magista inspects hives to a chorus of songbirds and honking geese. The bees here forage on blueberries and a medley of kitchen herbs and heirloom vegetables from the Croft farm. “Everyone’s garden benefits from having these pollinators around,” says Magista.
The owners of the Croft contacted Magista because they wanted to add bees to their farmlands for biodiversity. That’s also how the beekeeper found his way to placing hives in a grove of olive trees at Red Ridge Farms and pinot noir vineyards in the Willamette Valley. “Honey and bees create a conversation within our community,” says Magista.
And the conversation often leads to people asking: What can I do? Whether the concern is colony-collapse disorder or industrial agriculture, “people want to know how to become good stewards of the land,” says Magista. Over the past eight years, the beekeeper has seen the benefit of reclaiming unused urban landscapes for food production. It contributes to the environmental health of our neighborhoods and our communities, he says.
From country hives to city rooftops, Magista sees urban beekeeping as one solution for a brighter future.
Video still photo by Mark Gamba.
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