On a rooftop high above the brightly-lit beauty shops and potato tornado vendors of pulsating Myeongdong, a young man stands amongst crepe myrtle trees and tigerlilies, carefully lighting a flame and igniting the contents of a funny-looking little stainless steel pitcher. He walks over to a wooden box on stilts and lifts the roof off of it, funneling smoke inside from the stainless steel container.
It’s time for Jin Park to check on the beloved queen bee of a hive belonging to his non-profit Urban Bees Seoul, which educates South Koreans about the source of one of their most beloved and least understood foods. The stainless steel pitcher pours forth smoke that temporarily subdues the bees, allowing him to take a careful look inside the hive to ensure that the queen is alive and healthy, and that honey is being produced.
Koreans are extremely amorous of the ancient sweet that was once reserved only for the royal and the wealthy. They will pay premium prices for the supposedly more nutritious honey of the apis cerana, the Asian honeybee. Many Koreans take royal jelly and propolis supplements or purchase pricey manuka honey from New Zealand. Honey is the star ingredient of an entire line of products by popular beauty brand Skin Food, and propolis features in multiple products as well.
How interesting then, that this paradise for honey lovers hosts a population fearful of the creators of their beloved food. In 2013, the Seoul Metropolitan Government began to allow urban beekeeping within its confines, sparking fear that bee swarms would be dangerous. Park’s job is to help Seoulites understand how integral bees are to not only food culture, but the survival of all Koreans.
“When it comes to bees, city people think they’re dangerous,” Park said. “Changing people’s opinions is really hard, so we use media and education to raise awareness of how they are. There haven’t been any incidents, so people are realizing that they’re safe.”
Park understands the appeal of connecting food and bees.
“First, you explain through food,” Park said. “If you don’t have bees, you can’t have almonds, or apples. One-hundred percent of those things will disappear without bees.”
Koreans have a profound attachment to their natural environs, with fabled songs about their favorite mountains, flowers and trees. Using this love for nature, Park demystifies the secret life of bees both during his educational tours at Urban Bees hives and through school visits. He works with students at the kindergarten, high school and college levels to connect their love of nature, honey and bees.
Urban Bees Seoul’s hives have both apis cerana and apis mellifera bees, which provide different benefits. Park says that while mellifera bees produce a lot of honey, ceranas produce a smaller amount of honey; ceranas are better at surviving harsh, cold climates, while melliferas suffer.
With only three full-time employees, Park depends on a devoted corps of adult volunteers. Park teaches the budding beekeepers and hopes that many will someday install hives on top of their own homes. Volunteers learn everything from how to install a new queen bee to how to swarm a hive, to safety and emergency procedures.
Park is also collaborating with a company called SuperJam in England, which was already selling its products in Korea.
“SuperJam initially contacted us to collaborate with them to develop a Korean version of SuperHoney in Europe,” Park said. “The company is using only honey from urban hives in cities, and we adapted some of their concepts to create our SuperHoney.”
Sparked by his work, UNESCO approached Urban Bees Seoul, hoping to work with the organization to create more urban beehives. On the twelfth story of the building, UNESCO cultivates the lovely, diverse garden outside the Baerong Namu Cafe from which Park’s thirteenth-story bees feed.
“UNESCO wanted to develop a relationship to support ecosystems of biodiversity in Korea,” Park said. “We also receive support from the Korean government and corporations like Clarins.”
Urban Bees Seoul has since grown, with 16 locations across the cities of Seoul, Goongpo, Ilsan, Suwon and Incheon. Park’s goal is to grow the organization to 20,000 more beekeepers in both major metropolitan areas and small cities in the next three to four years.
Park hopes that through his educational efforts, the average Seoulite — and Korean — will no longer fear bees, but love them as much as the honey they make.
Dakota Kim is Paste Magazine’s Food Editor. She is fascinated by the piping sounds that queen bees make. Tweet her at @dakotakim1.