Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said DC Water’s Blue Plains treatment plant is located along the Anacostia River. It is located on the Potomac River. This version has been corrected.
It’s a blazing hot summer day, and Bill Brower and Toni Burnham are standing on the roof of one of the myriad buildings that dot the campus of Blue Plains, the vast wastewater treatment plant on the banks of the Potomac River.
In large veiled hats and thick long-sleeve white shirts, they’re hardly dressed for the weather. But their focus today is not on the temperature outside. It’s on the inside of the 15 blue and white bee hives in front of them.
Last week, a new queen was introduced, and there’s a chance she may have been rejected by the colony. And so Brower, a project manager who specializes in sustainability issues at D.C. Water, and Burnham, president of the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance, are here to assess the fallout.
“It’s like a soap opera with 50,000 characters, and we have to figure out if it’s ‘Days of Our Lives’ or ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” Burnham said.
Bees? Living on the roof of North America’s largest wastewater treatment plant?
But the rooftop apiary on the utility’s 140-acre campus is part of an experiment to see whether bees can thrive in such an unconventional setting. The hope is that if it works here, it can work at thousands of similar facilities across the United States.
If you’re a bee, it can be hard to find a decent home in urban areas like D.C. — too much noise, too many humans and not enough open land and tall trees.
As it turns out, D.C. Water’s campus, bordered on one side by the Potomac River and the other by Oxon Hill Farm, is not a bad place to be if you’re a bee.
Brower and Chris Peot, D.C. Water’s director of resource recovery, hit on the idea of opening an apiary about three years ago. The pair thought it would be a way to build links with the urban agriculture community, promote their goal of a more sustainable campus and help bees.
They reached out to the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance, a local resource for apiarists in the region. And soon, with the help of Burnham, they were in the bee business.
Beekeeping, like raising chickens, has become a popular pastime for city types, including some at Washington’s most famous addresses. Michelle Obama installed the first White House beehive in 2009, and Melania Trump has said it will remain on the grounds, producing honey for the first family and their guests. In June, Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Pence, installed a hive at their residence, giving more than 15,000 bees free run of the sprawling U.S. Naval Observatory campus. In Virginia, George Mason University launched its Honey Bee Initiative in 2012.
These days, bees can use all the help they can get. The insects, critical to the production of crops including almonds, squash and watermelon, have been the victims of both man-made and naturally occurring problems.
According to statistics offered by the White House, the number of honeybee hives in the United States has declined from 6 million during the 1940s to only about 2.5 million today.
The problem is worldwide — making experiments like the one at D.C. Water useful for those looking at how to provide bees with livable habitats.
In, D.C. alone, there are 300 hives registered with the city, which gave the go-ahead for city dwellers on nonfederal property to keep bees in 2015.
The effort at D.C. Water has not been without its challenges: Some employees worried more bees would equal more stings — fears that have proved unfounded. Morris said the winged residents have proved to be “remarkably tame” — more focused on their work than on tangling with D.C. Water workers.
That’s backed by Brower, who added management of the hives to his already long list of projects. He had no previous beekeeping experience, but in three years, he said he’s only been stung once.
Beekeeping is not easy, even under the most ideal circumstances, and the question of where to put the hives on the water utility’s massive campus proved tricky.
“When we can’t put bees where they want to be, we have to figure out how to manage them,” Burnham said. “Bees are like anyone else — they need food, water and good weather.”
The bees’ initial home in an open spot on the rooftop was too windy. And despite the apiary’s proximity to the Potomac, water was still a problem, said Burnham, who has served as D.C. Water’s bee consultant. Bees, being resourceful, compensated by drinking condensation from a nearby air conditioning condenser, she said. It wasn’t until it came time to service the condenser that officials discovered that several thousand had met their end after being sucked into the unit, Burnham said. Now they provide water for the apiary and have put the hives in a spot that shields the bees from the wind. The bees, Burnham said, appear to be doing well.
Even so, there’s always a risk. This queen situation for one thing.
Brower and Burnham planned this particular welfare check for midmorning because that’s when most of the bees are out working, he said.
Even so, there are plenty left in the hive and more than a few buzzing about.
Brower and Burnham go about their task, slowly pulling the frames from the blue and white boxes. A silver smoker sits atop one of hives.
Using a sharp metal tool, Brower carefully lifts one of the frames from its wooden box. He gently pushes the bellows of the silver can, which emit a few slow puffs of smoke over the bees.
“It calms them,” he explains. “They think there’s a fire so they just hang in place.”
He slowly turns the frame over while Burnham peers, examining the individual cells looking to see how many eggs have been laid and which might be hatching.
After examining one particular frame, Burnham turned to Brower.
“What do we say now, Bill?” she asked, a wide grin on her face. “We say, ‘Boo-YA!’ ”
In other words, things look great.
She pointed to a large bee with a yellow dot. It’s the queen.
“There was some possibility that they would reject her,” Burnham said. But there she is alive and laying eggs. “That’s what the ‘boo-YA’ was about.”
Added Brower: “It is fascinating to learn how these creatures work — so different from how human populations operate. If we want a new leader, we get out and organize and vote; if honeybees want a new leader, they nurture a new one who may eventually kill the reigning queen.”
This year, Brower and Burnham’s work was rewarded. D.C. Water celebrated its first harvest of Blue Plains Honey. The tiny jars have proved to be a popular giveaway: D.C. Water’s general manager, George Hawkins, doles them out at community gatherings. D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh is just one of the local VIPs who’ve requested a sample.
Brower has worked on many projects at D.C. Water. But, grinning as he grabs a jar and fills it with some Blue Plains honey, his pride in this particular project is clear.
“You don’t always get to see such an obvious benefit,” he said as he held a jar up to the light and admired the golden brown liquid.