The routine starts in the mid-afternoon: Charles Wilson dons his baggy all-white jumpsuit and slips on a protective mask. He ignites his pine straw-filled hand smoker and prying tool and gets to work, harvesting honey in his back yard.
“Washington, D.C., is a city of politics,” he says. “Sometimes it’s good to get away from politics and personalities and just focus on Mother Nature.”
He opens up the roofs of a pair of bee hives. The smoke burning off of the straw distracts the bees and allows for Wilson to check the honeycombs and start the routine all over again.
Call him the Beekeeper of Anacostia.
Anacostia is known for many things. The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. The home of the famous Goodman League Roundball Classic tournament. The charm of hundreds of houses that have been popular with many young families over the last several years.
Now, it’s home to one of the city’s few, if not only, African American beekeepers.
“I think that’s pretty cool to be able to say, ‘You know what, I’m helping out the environment, I’m learning something new,” Wilson says on a recent bright summer day.
Wilson, 36, harvested 16 pounds of honey this year, a modest amount for D.C. beekeepers. Hives in the city usually produce between 60 and 100 pounds each growing season.
Still, Wilson isn’t worried, because the demand for honey has been tremendous. After mentioning on his blog, The ART of WArd8, that he was selling honey, his popularity soared.
“I started getting phone calls and e-mails and tweets from people all over the city. From Georgetown to Capitol Hill to Anacostia, everybody was like ‘Can I get a jar of your honey?’” he says. Wilson produced enough honey this year to fill 26 jars; he sold all of them.
“It’s something that is in high demand.”
Wilson, an attorney by trade who now works as a consultant, tried his hand at beekeeping last winter when he saw an announcement on his neighborhood listserv about a beekeeping class being offered by the Bowie-Upper Marlboro Beekeepers Association, or BUMBA.
After paying a $15 fee to join BUMBA, a Prince George’s County beekeeping group, Wilson realized that he was hooked. “I’m like that this is something I can do in my own backyard,” he said.
The six-week course brought in other area beekeepers to share their experiences and demonstrate how easy it was to get started. Wilson learned about the importance of queen bees, nurse bees, worker bees, cleaner bees, guard bees and more
“It’s so structured, and it’s so much in sync that [I thought] ‘I just gotta try it.’”
Indeed, Wilson’s neighbors express surprise that their community houses a small honey factory.
“Beekeeping is not the first thing — I don’t even think it’s the 10th thing — that comes to mind for people when they think about Anacostia, so I definitely thought it was really cool and really unique,” says Wilson’s neighbor Rashida Shelton. The results are “delicious,” she says.
Jeff Miller, president of D.C. Honey Bees, says Washington is a great place to harvest a hive. “We have a fairly lush and green canopy in the city that provides an extremely large amount of forage area for the bees.” Miller estimates that in the organization’s three years they’ve helped about 100 beekeepers, including Wilson, learn how to maintain a hive. “There’s significant interest in urban beekeeping, and we continue to get inquiries from folks who are interested in doing it.”
During the classes, Wilson bought supplies for maintaining a colony for a year, which included a hive body and frames — and of course, a package of about 10,000 bees. The queen bee fills up each comb, which is made by the worker bees, with an egg, of which she can lay up to 2,000 a day. A package of 10,000 bees needs about a year to quintuple its numbers and build out its hive to yield a successful crop, says Miller.
“In the first year you’re just feeding your bees to get them to produce comb so they build out their colony,” says Wilson. “In the comb they store honey, they raise their young and they also store pollen.”
Wilson has never met an active African American beekeeper, but he would definitely like to see more interested in the hobby. “When I do go to these meetings, I meet a lot of interesting people, but I guess it’s like corporate America — we’re few and far between,” he says. Wilson thinks that a fear of bees might be what is keeping others away, even though he maintains that honeybees “can be like teddy bears at times.”
The bees will determine if he continues producing honey through the fall. The high honey season runs from early March to mid-June in the District. There is a “fall flow,” but Miller recommends that any extra honey generated after the first harvest be left for the bees to feed on during the winter. They need about 35 pounds to survive the cold months.
“As a beekeeper now, I pay attention to the weather and climate change,” says Wilson, who also bikes and landscapes. “If it’s 50 degrees and higher, they’re outside. If it’s 49 degrees, they’re inside. It’s just weird how they can tell the weather.”
“It feels like I’ve really got my own science project in my backyard,” he says.
More from The RootDC