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How One Dallas Chef Is Using a Deep Ellum Rooftop to Help Save the Bees

On Elm Street in Deep Ellum, where you can get tattoos from reality TV-famous artists and pizza that’s too large for a single person to carry, you might also run into resident bees and butterflies. They’re not swarming in from another part of town, just swooping down from a couple of stories above Izkina.

There, chef Joel Orsini, with the help of chef Yoni Lang, maintains an apiary and a growing garden on the roof above Deep Ellum Hostel, which also houses the restaurant Izkina.

And Orsini is not doing it just for fun.

Joel Orsini has an apiary on the roof of Izkina not just because he loves honey, but because he hopes the colony will help declining bee populations.EXPAND
Joel Orsini has an apiary on the roof of Izkina not just because he loves honey, but because he hopes the colony will help declining bee populations.
Taylor Adams

“I needed to do this,” Orsini says. “I needed to save those bees so they aren’t gone in 20 years.”

Orsini has always had an interest in the environment with every step of his cooking career, which includes work in New York and at Dallas’ FT33. Eight months ago, he started considering how to cultivate a rooftop greenspace. Six months ago, it started taking shape.

Nearly everything was donated: Profound Microfarms helped with parts of the apiary, Full City Rooster for burlap, Roth for some construction materials. And it’s not for nothing, Orsini says.

Yoni Lang (left) and Joel Orsini are the two-man show in the kitchen of Izkina. They’re also behind the life sprouting atop the hostel's Deep Ellum roof.EXPAND
Yoni Lang (left) and Joel Orsini are the two-man show in the kitchen of Izkina. They’re also behind the life sprouting atop the hostel's Deep Ellum roof.
Taylor Adams

“A bunch of bees have started showing up in The Cedars,” he says.

He can point to the building where he lives in that neighborhood, where bees hadn’t shown up until recently.

The rooftop has a small compartment for bees: Orsini can walk you through the technology, how he’ll be able to shift the compartments to release the honey without disturbing bees, and how he can expand the area so as not to force out the queen bee.

They won’t see the first harvest of honey until next spring, he says, but those bees will produce 150-200 pounds a year, enough for the bar below and then some.

That’s just a tiny portion of the roof, though. A lightly shaded area accommodates things that spring from dirt: from flowers to peppers to basil, there’s plenty to use downstairs below in the kitchen.

“We’re a zero-waste kitchen,” Orsini says.

It’s easy to believe, what with the compost container sitting next to the elevated garden.

“I’m constantly reading,” he says of the beekeeping. “This,” he says, pointing to the garden, “is what my family has done,” referring to his father and his father’s parents. “Growing up, we did the same thing."

The past two Sundays, damaging storms pummeled Deep Ellum and the rest of Dallas, and this rooftop setup didn’t escape the intense winds.

Joel Orsini (left) and Yoni Lang look over the plants that have resided on the rooftop of Izkina for less than a year. Future plans mean more plants on this space that’s higher than most buildings around it in Deep Ellum.EXPAND
Joel Orsini (left) and Yoni Lang look over the plants that have resided on the rooftop of Izkina for less than a year. Future plans mean more plants on this space that’s higher than most buildings around it in Deep Ellum.
Taylor Adams

“This whole side came down,” he says, pointing to one side of the garden. “For 11 minutes I was up here, braced against this wall. I saved the bees first. The bees were all going nuts.”

Ninety minutes later, he had everything pretty much back in order. The arrangement survived the storm we saw a week later, too.

“I was up there for the brunt of the storm holding things down and sandbagging areas,” Orsini says.

And he’ll be up there bracing until more sandbags come in, as they all want to see more growth on that rooftop. Code will have to allow more weight, but Orsini and Lang see a future where the whole surface is green.

Come winter, plastic will go up and they’ll have a greenhouse. In year two, assuming zoning agrees, more of the roof will have a similar design.

And if recent sightings of monarch butterflies on Elm Street don’t seem all that interesting to you, Orsini will make it abundantly clear that this is a big deal.

“People will notice it and want it, too,” Orsini says of Izkina’s rooftop, which gets greener every day. “That’s one of our goals.”

Izkina, 2801 Elm St. (Deep Ellum)

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