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A Growing Buzz Surrounds the Increasing Number of Capital Beekeepers

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Executive chefs, Aron Weber and Ian Bens, take time away from the busy kitchen to tend over 100,000 honeybees located on the rooftop of The Fairmont Hotel in D.C.'s West End. Video by Elaine McMillion/The Washington Post

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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Something unusual is happening on Washington rooftops, a new addition to the satellite dishes, HVAC units and snipers that are the usual fixtures atop the city's buildings.

Urban beekeepers, who prowl their rooftops in full beekeeper regalia, are becoming chic in the nation's capital, and their semi-secret society is less so, given the growing popularity of their peculiar and ancient hobby.

The White House recently added a hive to the South Lawn, and the Fairmont Hotel in the West End started two hives on its rooftop, where the chefs-turned-beekeepers tend their hives and wax poetic about the District honey they will drizzle on cheese and incorporate into their white chocolate mousse dish.

There are several dozen known beekeepers in the city. For years, they have tried to stay beneath the radar, uncertain about whether their neighbors would be pleased knowing several thousand stinging insects are next door.

"You know, there are lots of people in this community who think I'm crazy for talking to you," said Toni Burnham, 45, who is in her fifth summer of beekeeping and has emerged as one of the city's most prominent and vocal beekeepers.

Burnham keeps two hives atop her Washington townhouse. She tends to them on weekdays, when her neighbors are at work, slowly climbing the spiral staircase to her roof in her "bee costume," looking left and right to make sure no one is out gardening or sunbathing when she pries open the hive to check on her "girls."

She wants to keep the location of her home a secret, though she isn't breaking any laws.

Nothing specifically prohibits beekeeping in the District. But that was also the case in New York City, where a city health code banning animals that are "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm" was applied to beekeepers.

Burnham is bucking the furtive, don't-ask-don't-tell ethos of city beekeeping by lobbying for legislation that protects and encourages beekeeping in the city.

She helped the city install a community hive at the Lederer Gardens in Northeast Washington and is going public with her campaign, after hiding her identity for five years as the "secret beekeeper" behind her blog, CityBees.blogspot.com.

Burnham said she can become "bee-vangelical" on urban beekeeping.

Some apiarists are romantics who enrolled in beekeeping classes after reading "The Secret Life of Bees" and fantasizing about amber jars of honey.


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