D.C.’s high pollen counts may make allergy sufferers sneeze and groan. But they’re a boon for bees, which use the golden powder to produce honey. And if you have enough outdoor space to grow flowers, you might be able to keep your own hive.

Eating honey gathered from the backyard sounds sweet. But caring for a swarm of stingers seems dangerous. “It’s easier than it seems,” says Toni Burnham, a veteran apiarist with two hives on Capitol Hil. To get buzzing, she recommends taking a class. “Beekeeping isn’t something you can learn from a book,” she says. “You’re developing a relationship with a very different creature.” Find local intro courses via the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association of Maryland and the Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia.

Many first-timers often spend a season working with a seasoned mentor. “To be a successful beekeeper takes a lot of living with them, observing them and working next to someone who can teach you about what your eyes are seeing and your nose is smelling,” says Burnham. Hive masters can also turn to online forums such as Beesource for advice.

Even though you’ll be as busy as a you-know-what putting your hive in during the spring, the work pays off when the liquid gold is harvested in mid- to late summer. “Washington honey is uber-cool,” Burnham says. “Like wine, it’s a picture of a place where it was produced.”

D.C. bees have access to a variety of flora, including tulip trees, backyard herbs and the exotic plantings at the U.S. National Arboretum. This mix brings a richly floral flavor to homegrown honey.

This sweet taste inspired the Fairmont Hotel‘s (2401 M St. NW) executive sous chef, Ian Bens, and executive pastry chef, Aron Weber, to start keeping bees on the hotel roof in the spring of 2009. The first year, the pair harvested 40 pounds of honey, which they use in drinks and dishes such as granola (see sidebar), iced tea and the Beetini, a buzzy twist on the martini. “We keep things very simple,” Weber says. “That way, the honey shines.”

Though the two chefs originally started honey farming to fuel their culinary projects, their hobby made them appreciate Washington in a new way. “I never stopped and looked at bees before,” Bens says. “Now I notice them everywhere, and I wonder if they’re ours.”

Buzzy Bylaws

IN D.C.: It’s legal to have a hive on federally controlled land like parks, but things get murky when it comes to housing bees on residential properties. Conflicting municipal codes leave beekeepers in a judicial gray area. For info, contact the Department of Parks and Recreation, which trains volunteers to maintain hives in community gardens.

IN MD./VA.: Beekeeping is legal in Maryland, but owners must register colonies within 30 days and update registration annually (download a form at Mda.state.md.us/plants-pests/plant_protection_weed_mgmt/apiary_inspection/index.php). Virginia also allows beekeeping, but its laws are more nuanced (read them at Vdacs.virginia.gov/plant&pest/apiary.shtml).

Recipe File: Honey Granola

3 cups old-fashion rolled oats
1/2 cup coconut
1 cup slivered almonds or chopped pecans
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup light oil
1 cup honey
2 cups dried fruit

Makes Five Cups
Preheat the oven to 300 F. In a large bowl, combine the oats, coconut, nuts, cinnamon and salt. In a small bowl, stir together the oil and honey.
Pour mixture over the dry ingredients and toss, making sure all the dry ingredients are coated by the liquids. Spread mixture on a prepared baking sheet and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring occasionally so the mixture browns evenly.
Place on rack to cool. Once cool, add dried fruit. Store in a airtight container.

Recipe courtesy Ian Bens, The Fairmont

Written by Express contributor Nevin Martell
Photos by Marge Ely/Express