For years, a few die-hard beekeepers operated under the radar in the District, knowing that the city’s ambiguous laws offered little or no guarantee that they could keep honeybees. One official complaint, and they’d have to buzz off.
A little more than a year ago, Mayor Vincent Gray signed legislation allowing residents (and businesses) to raise these industrious creatures. The District Department of the Environment has since written regulations that guide the number, placement and registration of individual hives.
As bees have come out of the shadows, so have budding apiarists. A group called the DC Beekeepers Alliance has organized a beginner’s course at two locations in advance of the beekeeping season. The classes are full, and organizers have had to turn away many, ahem, wannabees.
Toni Burnham, the group’s president, said that 60 households — about 75 people — have enrolled in the courses. An additional 40 are on a waiting list.
Keeping bees is trendy. Michelle Obama (actually White House carpenter Charlie Brandts) has been keeping highly productive hives since 2009 at the White House vegetable garden, a federal site presumably beyond city jurisdiction. Beekeeping fits into the local and organic food zeitgeist. Moreover, it allows us to actually do something about one of the ecological disasters of our time, the precipitous loss of honeybees, especially those used on an industrial scale to pollinate vast acreages of crops such as almonds, apples and cranberries.
Honeybees are like any other kind of livestock: They flourish with husbandry, they can easily perish without it. In the past, honeybees were less dependent on us. Colonies would propagate by swarming — the dowager queen would take half her subjects with her to a tree cavity while a new queen moved into the throne in the hive. The pressures of disease and pests are so overwhelming today that feral colonies just die off. This is why I started keeping bees about a decade ago.
Last week, I sat in on the class at the campus of the University of the District of Columbia where veteran Northern Virginian beekeeper Pat Haskell took the students through the bee colony’s year, a dynamic sequence of events that begins now as the queen lays eggs and creates legions of workers, ostensibly for springtime growth and honey production. The prime objective, though, is to make it through the following winter.
“The beekeeping year starts August 15th,” said Haskell, who is folksy but insistent when it comes to doing this well. When nectar dries up in the critical summer months, reach for the sugar water. “Feed, feed, feed,” she implored the students. “These are your children.”
She spent much of the two-hour lecture talking about the signs of disease and pests, of which there are a frightening number, including bee dysentery, pernicious mites, freeloading mice and predatory skunks.
This alone might have the class heading for the hills, but everyone seemed more curious than daunted by the litany of bee woes. (If you listed all the ailments that can afflict a rosebush, you’d never grow one.)
The course takes an arc, Burnham said, meaning I caught the doom-and-gloom lecture. The students are buoyed, she said, by the thrill of beekeeping, its environmental benefits and, yes, even all the cool gear that goes with it.
Samantha Kenny, a sophomore at American University, is a member of AU’s beekeeping society and helps to keep four hives on campus. The colonies died off in this harsh winter, and she will be stocking them with new bees in April.
Lloyd Grove and Kat Ridolfi, who live on Capitol Hill, moved to the District three years ago from Berkeley, Calif., the fountainhead of today’s local food movement. Beekeeping “is in line with our lifestyle,” said Ridolfi, an environmental scientist. They have concluded, though, that their rowhouse is too shady for beehives — bees like their home in the sun — and will help Burnham with one of her many apiaries across the city.
Jeanne McCarty, who lives in Washington’s Chevy Chase neighborhood, said her father kept bees in Mississippi, and she wants her 4-year-old son to grow up with the same connection to nature. “I’m fascinated. I just can’t wait to see how they work,” she said.
Many of the city beekeepers will face special challenges. Apartment rooftops make great places for hives, but the keeper must win the acceptance of the managers or the condo board. Terrestrial hives are likely to be in proximity to neighbors who might have deep if misplaced anxieties about this stinging insect.
That is why this cohort of new beekeepers has to be keenly prepared, Burnham said. The limiting factor for the class sizes, she said, was not the space but the number of experienced beekeepers available to guide the novices. Theory is great, but practice and guidance are at the heart of it. “I only have 12 mentors, 18 at most, and most beekeepers have learned beekeeping at somebody’s elbow.”
And in the city, hives have to be shepherded in an environment where the major colonizing animal is the human being. Bees, Burnham said, “have to be managed with that dominant species in mind.”