Auckland has looked pretty drab for the past few weeks during a local lockdown. The streets of New Zealand's biggest city might have been empty but the roof-tops have been a hive of activity.

So says Jessie Baker of Bees Up Top, an Auckland-based company specialising in urban beekeeping.

She has had to visit the hives throughout the city, including 15 or so hives on the rooftops of hotels.

While many of us based in the city have had to work from home, it's not a luxury beekeepers have had. Apiculture is an essential service, she says "so it's all go as per usual."

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While hives stay dormant through winter it is about to be the busiest time of the year for beekeepers.

"At the moment in Winter, bees are eating their honey stores," she says however, "as soon as spring hits, generally the 1st of October, the honey flow comes on again."

Jessie Baker of Bees Up Top has 50 hives throughout Auckland, producing 1tonne of honey a year. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Jessie Baker of Bees Up Top has 50 hives throughout Auckland, producing 1tonne of honey a year. Photo / Thomas Bywater

As well as honey production there's another, less welcome occurrence with spring: swarming season.

It's a natural part of the life cycle in which bees leave to set up new hives, but can get out of hand if not monitored.

While Bees up Top monitors and moves along bees which are preparing to flee the hive, Jessie says she's kept busy by call outs to wild hives in Auckland backyards.

"Every spring I'm driving all over Auckland collecting 2-3 bee swarms per day."

"A lot of people don't know the difference between bees and wasps and they tend to call an exterminator," fortunately most have a direct line to Jessie, for her to come rescue the wild bees.

"Which is just such a win-win," she says.

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While the rest of the world is mad for New Zealand Manuka honey, Jessie says there's plenty for bees to eat in Auckland's leafy suburbs. Even for her hives on hotels in the CBD – including the Crowne Plaza and Grand Mercure – there's enough to produce up to 15kg of honey per hive. Half of which the hotel managers and their kitchens can share with guests.

Hive of activity: Urban 'rescue hives' are thriving on Auckland's skyline. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Hive of activity: Urban 'rescue hives' are thriving on Auckland's skyline. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Having worked as a one-woman operation for years, with help from her builder husband, this year Jessie is pregnant – which is an added complication.

"I'm putting out my feelers for help," she says, though she plans to still be hands on.

"It's a really fun thing to rescue a swarm. It's a real adrenaline rush."

Fortunately there are plenty of other beekeepers and rooftop enthusiasts around Auckland to lend a hand.

beesuptop.co.nz

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Kai in the Sky

Becky Umbers is not an apiarist. Nor does she have any experience with bees. However what the 24-year-old comedian does have is plenty of contacts and high aspirations for her own roof-top business.

Kai in the Sky is a start-up growing produce on Auckland rooftops for hotels and cafes.

"Obviously our projects are pretty similar," says Becky. "Bees up top have been a great help with getting stared."

The project has been a dream Becky had since her time at AUT. As a student she spent more time than she should "staring out the windows" of the central Auckland campus, but it helped her realise quite how many flat, unused roof-spaces there were in the central city.

The spaces got more than their fair share of Auckland's generous lashings of sun and rain. It seemed as shame for them to be fallow.

Garden city: Paris pledged to have 100 hectares of roofspace to urban farms by this year. Photo / Chuttershap, Unsplash
Garden city: Paris pledged to have 100 hectares of roofspace to urban farms by this year. Photo / Chuttershap, Unsplash

"It's nothing new in Europe and America," she says, taking a lead from an "enormous gardens in Paris" designed by Agropolis. Planted on top of the Beaugrenelle mall, the 7 kilometre-square urban farm is France's biggest according to Forbes, employing 20 gardeners and producing 1000kg of fruit and veg a day during harvest.

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The same company helped grow a mini urban allotment in Christchurch's "Garden City 2.0" which launched the idea in New Zealand.

However, it was first New Zealand lockdown in March which gave her the push she needed to pursue her dream of planting rooftop gardens.

"Covid had been the push for everyone to get onboard to help hospitality services," says Becky.

Border closures and travel disruption have seen kitchen supplies and imported herbs surge in cost, and the normal flow of custom to restaurants and cafes has all but dried up.

The New Zealand's well publicised "tomato shortage" is just one example of how the pandemic has upset demand and supply, with the fruit commanding an all time high price of $13.65 a kg.

Urban Farms: The Christchurch garden grows edibles and composts organic waste from inner city businesses. Photo / Agropolis
Urban Farms: The Christchurch garden grows edibles and composts organic waste from inner city businesses. Photo / Agropolis

Kai in the Sky is a project that's caught in people's imaginations, and she's been blown away by the help she's received. Apart from beekeepers she's had input from engineers, graphic designers and charities who have been inspired by her project.

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"I feel like I'm in a heist movie," says Becky, assembling her team of specialists.

With the first greens being planted at a location at the top of Dominion Road, she hopes the first garden will help the idea will take root.

kaiinthesky.com