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The Perfect Pursuit In This Urban Hive
A Growing Buzz Surrounds the Increasing Number of Capital Beekeepers

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.

"Almost all of them washed out once they realized that, basically, this is about dealing with insects," she said through the veil that cascaded over her head and shoulders as she worked to loosen the frames that house her colony.

Then there are those who are greatly alarmed at the global bee crisis, a worldwide epidemic of colony collapse disorder.

"I think it is fair to say that for most urban beekeepers, we see beekeeping as a means to support and enliven the environment around us, rather than an agricultural pursuit," Burham said. "I'm not in it for the honey."

Colony collapse disorder, a combination of disease and environmental factors that is slowly killing the world's honeybees, also affects pollination. "In the absence of pollinators, our urban greenscape suffers, and after that the bugs, the birds, the critters, and even the water and the people," Burnham said.

That is one reason the White House added a bee hive to the organic garden. Burham is a mentor to the White House beekeeper.

But there is also a certain cool factor to being the benevolent master of several thousand insects that scare most people.

"My friends who came over used to want to see them. But then one of them got stung. So not so much anymore," said Alison Fritz, a 15-year-old Sidwell Friends student who might be the city's youngest certified beekeeper.

It is also a way to do something old-fashioned, handcrafted and rural right here in the city, said Joseph Konrad, 43, who keeps a couple hives on the grounds of the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast Washington.

On a recent Saturday, he fired up a smoker containing an aromatic combination of pine needles and blasted a gentle puff of smoke into his hive to lull his bees into a torpor.

Along with regular honey, Konrad produces bottles of mead using fermented honey.

Nathan Zeender, 32, a database administrator who home-brews beer in his spare time, plans to add the honey from his two hives to his brew.

That brings us to the gourmands.

Like most things cosmopolitan, city honey can be more flavorful and more exciting than country honey.

Urban bees have to work harder to gather their pollen as they buzz from the patio herb garden to the tulip poplar by the playground and then to the linden tree that arches over the corner store.

The combination of flavors is exciting for Ian Bens and Aron Weber, chefs at the Fairmont who campaigned to get hives on the hotel's rooftop.

After the lunch rush -- about the time cooks used to head into the alley for a cigarette break -- the two go to the 10th floor of the hotel with their smoker, don their modern beekeeper get-ups (theirs look like fencing gear) and tend the hives.

"We've had a taste; it's wonderful. So floral," Weber said. "What do you think of a beetini?"

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