Raising bees a breeze for two New Jersey hospitals

Published in Healthcare Spotlight

Overlook Medical Center and The Valley Hospital have established rooftop apiaries.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Two hospitals in north central New Jersey, working independently, have taken the same approach to sustainability by adding bee hives at their facilities. The goal at both hospitals—Overlook Medical Center in Summit and The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood—is the same: to promote the use of local foods, help support a dwindling bee population and create some opportunities for retail sales.

Dawn Cascio, director of food and nutrition services at Valley, says the hospital installed two colonies of bees—about 20,000 bees in total—on the roof of the healthcare system’s Lucklow Pavilion in Paramus, about a mile from the main hospital.

“The hospital is trying to be as green as possible and this fits in with our goals for sustainability,” Cascio says. Valley is one of about 500 hospitals that are part of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, and this project is part of that effort.

Cascio says purchasing the bees cost the hospital “less than 1% of our overall food budget,” adding that her administrators were more receptive to the idea than she expected. The biggest challenge actually came from the hospital’s legal department, which wanted to make sure there were no unresolved liability issues before giving Cascio the go-ahead.

At the start of the project, the bees are being fed sugar water, which they will use to create the beeswax that supports the hive. Once the hive is established, the bees will  fly out in search of plants from which they would extract nectar. Where the bees forage will determine the flavor of the honey, Cascio adds.

The bees—which are expected to number about 60,000 by the end of the season—are expected to produce about 100 pounds of honey this year. Of that, 30 pounds will be harvested. The rest will be left for the bees to feed on over the winter. Much of the harvest will be used in patient foodservice, with the rest being packaged and sold in the hospital gift shop.

“We will use honey in a lot of our sauces, dressings and desserts, as well as infused waters,” Cascio says. “Our chef, Joseph Graziano, likes to balance the sweet and savory in his dishes.”

When Cascio was planning her project, one of the people with whom she spoke was Michael Atanasio, manager of food and nutrition at Overlook Medical Center. “Michael thought it was a cool idea,” she says—so cool, he decided to follow suit.

“I try to stay connected in the industry, and everyone here, including our president, is very committed to the environment,” Atanasio says. “I knew Dawn was doing this and I had also seen it in trade magazines.”

Overlook’s two hives sit on a lower roof of the hospital, one that is level with the building’s cafeteria. In addition to customers being able to see the beehives while they enjoy a meal, Atanasio has set up a webcam so people can also log in to watch the bees.

Like Cascio, Atanasio expects to incorporate part of his harvest into a variety of recipes. He also plans to sell some in the gift shop and he wants to use beeswax to create a lip balm and lotion, which he also will sell at retail locations.

“This can also be a cool tool for education,” he adds. “We want to set up some community projects like bringing kids up to see the bees. My goal is to add at least one hive per year until I run out of space.”

In addition to supplying the two hospitals with honey, Overlook’s and Valley’s projects may serve another purpose: to help repopulate the species. Since 2006, honeybees have been dying off in large numbers for unknown reasons.