In many parts of the country, honeybee populations are crashing, devastated by parasites and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder. But in the District, the plant-pollinating insects are thriving, according to local bee maven Jeff Miller.
“D.C. has a really green canopy, and so the bees tend to do very well here. In fact, better in the city than we’ve seen them do in the suburbs or even out in the countryside,” said Miller, who runs two apiary organizations, the nonprofit D.C. Honeybees and the for-profit Georgetown Honeybees. The latter has helped about 200 people and organizations become beekeepers since it began in 2010.
“The bees we have in the countryside sit in areas where there a lot of cash crops being grown, like corn or soybeans,” Miller said. “They don’t provide much nutrition for the bees. There’s not a lot of nectar. The city has a lot of trees, and trees provide a significant amount of pollen and nectar when the bees need it in the spring.”
“In the city you have flowers and window boxes that tend to bloom all season long, whereas in the countryside you’ve got crops that tend to bloom very quickly at one time. And then there’s nothing left for the bees to forage on.”
Miller, who is also director of real estate for the District’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, installed his own hives in 2009. He was soon importing bees from Georgia — “the epicenter of East Coast beekeeping” — for other homeowners, and then churches and office buildings. Perhaps his most prominent local client is National Public Radio, which installed hives on its new building’s green roof in May.
“Rooftops are really great places to put beehives, for a number of reasons, the most important being they’re away from most people who might be bothered by it,” Miller said. “But they also seem to thrive up there.”
The connection between bees and green roofs, however, is purely symbolic. Bees forage over a three-mile area, Miller explained, and couldn’t maintain a hive with just the nectar and pollen from plants on a single roof. In addition, most green roofs are planted with sedum, a shallow-rooted plant that’s exceptionally hardy but provides little nutrition for bees.
“It takes about 2 million blossoms to make one pound of honey,” Miller said. “So even if those green roofs were 100 percent planted with clover, there still wouldn’t be enough stuff on that roof to sustain the hive. They’d still need to forage outside.”
“We’re encouraging bees wherever they make sense. Rooftops tend to make sense,” he said. “We were talking with Whole Foods over in Glover Park. They’ve got a standard asphalt roof with rock ballast on top. That’s a perfect place to put a hive as well.”
Georgetown Honeybees, which has grown to have operations in the New York and Boston areas, installed hives on the roof of the Mt. Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District building and is in discussion with the Downtown Business Improvement District about a large-scale project for that neighborhood’s roofs. Miller’s groups also stocked hives at the Church of the Pilgrims, near Dupont Circle, and at the Farm at Walker Jones, on a D.C. public school campus at New Jersey Avenue and N. Capitol Street NW.
“It’s been amazing, the amount of productivity and yield they’ve gotten since we put bees over there,” Miller said of the urban farm. “Especially on certain crops like strawberries.”
Currently, the bees are wintering, not buzzing clover or strawberries. “The bees create a mass, or a ball, inside the hive, and keep themselves warm by buzzing and shaking,” Miller said. They feed on their own honey, or, if the hive is newly established, on sugar syrup provided by the beekeepers.
His customers fall into three roughly equal groups, Miller said. One-third are gardeners who want bees to pollinate their plants. Another third have heard about Colony Collapse Disorder and “just want to be part of the solution.” The others are interested in honey and are “disappointed that they’re probably not going to get any honey they can eat the first year. Because the bees are going to use all their energy trying to establish a strong hive.”
But if the bees succeed, the payoff is “anywhere from 60 to 100 pounds of honey per hive,” Miller said, which is more than five gallons of the sweet syrup. “Because in D.C., we do have such great foraging.”