Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach: Land of Golf and Honey

By: Amy Wimmer Schwarb

Thousands of Italian honeybees keep the Sawgrass Marriott resort stocked with local honey used in myriad ways around the property: in the spa, in the restaurants or just packaged and sold in the gift shop.

Ponte Vedra Beach – At the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, local honey is all the buzz.

The in-house farm-to-table restaurant serves a honey duck confit served with butternut risotto. The spa offers an exfoliating honey-sugar scrub. Room service delivers a cheese plate accompanied by a fresh slice of honeycomb. And even at the hotel Starbucks, three-ounce bottles of Ponte Vedra Bee Company honey line the shelves.

The source of all this sticky nature's goodness is tucked away behind clusters of mangroves on the resort property, a safe distance from golfers at TPC Sawgrass and guests at the Sawgrass Marriott. There, in a beehive box maintained by two Sawgrass Marriott food executives, thousands of five-banded Italian honeybees are hard at work.

The Sawgrass Marriott is a luxury property that provides access to TPC Sawgrass, home to the PGA Tour's THE PLAYERS Championship. The resort in Ponte Vedra Beach – located on scenic State Road A1A between Jacksonville and St. Augustine – includes a 20,000-square-foot spa and salon, plus access to tennis, miniature golf, swimming and fishing.

The fruits of the bees' labor keep the resort stocked with local honey used in myriad ways around the property: in the spa, in the restaurants or just packaged and sold in the gift shop.

According to the American Beekeeping Federation, honeybees contribute $14.6 billion annually to U.S. crop production, pollinating apples, cranberries, melons and broccoli. Crops such as blueberries, cherries and almonds are almost completely dependent on honeybees for pollination in the U.S.

The locally produced honey is the brainchild of resort food and beverage director Mark Butcher and executive chef David Scalise, who established the bee colony as an extension of the resort's focus on using locally produced fare in its flagship restaurant, the Augustine Grille.

The resort partners with area farmers, who supply meats and produce used there. One such partner is Twin Bridges Farm in nearby Macclenny.

"We buy produce from them, then save our produce scraps in the freezer, and they take those back with them to feed their chickens," Scalise says. "They deliver the produce in a van, and we also give them spent deep fryer oil that they convert to biodiesel to power the van."

Butcher and Scalise took a beekeeping class, bought the beehive supplies and launched their colony last year. The hardest part, though, was figuring out what to do with what the bees produced.     

"At first, we thought, 'OK, we have bees. Now, what do we do with all this honey?" Butcher says. "We quickly embraced the idea of involving the whole resort."

For guests, the honey experience doesn't have to stop at the walls of the opulent hotel. The resort also offers interested guests or even groups the chance to trudge out to the hive with Butcher or Scalise and check out the hive itself.

According to Sawgrass Marriott marketing staff, such tours are offered based on staff availability and are often free of charge. Guests who would like a full epicurean tour, including a meal prepared with the honey they just saw collected, can negotiate package prices.

The more daring guests are invited to don head-to-toe protective gear, including gloves and head covering, and handle the bees themselves. Butcher and Scalise like to note that they have never been stung, and that they selected their five-banded Italian honeybees because they are unaggressive.

But most guests, the men acknowledge, opt for what Butcher and Scalise call the "drive-by" tour of the beehive: They keep their distance as the beekeepers explain the intricate balance of life in the hive.

Guests can watch as the men maintain the hive, as they do once every week or two. They inspect the hive for parasites that might be lurking in its frames and dust the bees with powdered sugar – a trick that causes the bees to immediately begin cleaning the sugar off each other and, in the process, removing harmful mites from one another as well.

"You see how docile they are," Scalise says. "It's not like they're poised to attack."

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