As the honey bee population declines, locals are cultivating hives in their backyards, balconies and rooftops.
By Monica Arpino
Toni Burnham saw a BBC television news program that sparked her curiosity. Vincent Verweij enrolled in a training course through the Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia because he considered the $100 fee for nine courses a bargain. Dan Price brought hives to his Virginia farm when he noticed the bee swarms he used to dodge as a child had dwindled.
“I like the quirkiness of it,” Price said.
Unlike commercial beekeepers, these backyard beekeepers keep hives for sport. Hundreds of beehives dot public parks, community gardens and at-home window boxes across the region.
Honey bee hives are everywhere in the District — and in some of the most prominent real estate, from the gardens of the British Embassy and Franciscan Monastery to the rooftops of the Fairmont Hotel and National Geographic headquarters. Both American University and George Washington University campuses host several hives. Even the White House kitchen garden is home to approximately 70,000 bees.
Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association, Montgomery County Beekeepers Association and DC Beekeepers Alliance are some of the local beekeeping chapters expanding their memberships of would-be apiarists.
The rise in beekeeping interest could not come at a better time.
Where have all the honey bees gone?
Honey bee populations have been mysteriously falling for five years. While there has always been some unexplained loss of honey bees, significant losses were first reported in 2006. Since that year, it’s estimated that the number of bee colonies dropped by 20 to 40 percent in the United States, according to Bee Alert Technology, a company that develops systems to monitor bee health.
Many in the scientific community believe a worldwide disappearance of honey bees, known as colony collapse disorder, occurs from a combination of disease and environmental factors. Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is a phenomenon in which an entire colony of worker bees abruptly disappears from its beehive.
In addition to producing honey, honey bees are responsible for the variety and quality of fruits, vegetables and seeds that we eat. In fact, one-third of our daily diet comes from crops pollinated by honey bees, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A new study conducted by the University of Maryland found that a combination of widely used bee antibiotics could be responsible for the decline. The findings, published in November 2011’s online journal PLoS ONE, concluded that individual treatments used to protect hives against two of their biggest threats — foulbrood disease and varroa mites — were killing entire colonies when applied simultaneously.
“It was the biggest surprise I ever had in science,” said Dave Hawthorne, lead researcher of the study and an entomology professor at the University of Maryland.
Hawthorne’s study is the first to put forth this explanation for the collapse of the bee population. He said the next step is to replicate his laboratory tests in a farmer’s field, which he plans to do later this spring. In the meantime, Hawthorne recommended staggering the two treatments, which are essential to keeping hives healthy.
Washington offers a ‘mixed lunch box’ for bees
Burnham, one of the original proponents of beekeeping in D.C., said urban beekeepers play an important role in keeping alive a reserve of healthy bees.
“They can’t baby the bees as our hobbyists do,” Burnham said about the limitations of commercial beekeeping.
Moreover, Burnham said the city has invested resources in growing its tree canopy, resulting in millions of flowers, acorns and other food sources for pollinators such as birds, butterflies and bees. In particular, the tulip poplar and black locust trees are predominantly found in Mid-Atlantic States, such as Virginia and Maryland, and are central to shaping local honey.
The city’s nectar flow, the short but robust period when flowers bloom, lasts from the end of April through July, depending on weather. Bee-friendly linden trees line Massachusetts Avenue and add an extra two weeks in September to the nectar flow season.
The Anacostia and Potomac River basins also supply abundant and diverse food choices for honey bees, Burnham said.
The next step for urban beekeepers may be to reconcile legislation. Under current D.C. animal control regulations, the law states that beehives are not permitted within 500 feet of a residence, but it also says these zoning laws do not apply to bees confined in hives or enclosed spaces. Until then, beekeepers aim to educate people about how docile honey bees really are —they sting only as a last resort when provoked, unlike hornets and yellow jackets.
“We are one incident away from trouble,” Burnham said about the ambiguous laws.
Urban bees are healthier than rural or suburban bees for several reasons, including limited use of agricultural chemicals, she said. The bees feed off a myriad of unique flowering plants found in local parks and backyards, which in turn influence the taste, smell and color of urban honey.
“It would be like feeding your kids all nachos one week, all pizza, all broccoli another week,” Burnham said, comparing the diet of country bees to city bees. “Here they have a mixed lunch box.”
An ongoing study at the George Washington University seeks to confirm assessments like Burnham’s. Researchers are comparing the nutritional health of urban apiaries to those in rural and suburban settings, in a study led by fourth-year student Heidi Wolff and funding from the USDA and Founding Farmers restaurant. It’s one of the first studies to explore the potential influence of urban beekeeping on CCD.
Wolff’s hypothesis is that pollen collected in urban environments will be more diverse and provide more dietary breadth for honey bees. She said that along with the District’s varied landscaping and minimal use of pesticides, the city’s famous cherry trees are a high-protein dietary source for bees.
“I believe D.C. is greener and more environmentally friendly,” Wolff said.
While the results from the observational study won’t be released until summer 2012, Wolff said the findings could add to understanding why bees disappear.
“It won’t solve CCD, but it’s an outlet worth studying,” she said. “Everyone benefits from bees.”
Backyard beekeepers must overcome many challenges — CCD, pests and variable weather — and discouragement is chief among them, especially at the beginning.
Beehives require the most investment during the first year. A starter kit costs about $500, and the bees are fed sugar water everyday for 60 days. One 3-foot-wide hive holds about 30,000 bees and most backyard beekeepers keep own one or two hives. Beekeepers can order Italian honey bees, the most common species in the United States, online from a handful of suppliers in Georgia who ship the bees to homes and post offices.
The fruits of this labor are also delayed, as it’s recommended that new beekeepers don’t harvest honey for one year so bees can build upon existing honeycomb.
Honey bees contribute more than just honey
Verweij is one of those newcomers. He became interested in beekeeping a year ago and shares two hives with his friend in Vienna, Va. He enjoys local honey made from the tulip poplar tree because of its molasses color and gentle yet distinctive flavor, he said.
While many different insects yield crops, the USDA said the honey bee alone contributes to the production of billions of dollars worth of U.S. crops annually. Blueberries, pumpkins, almonds and chocolate are among several main crops that grow through bee pollination.
A majority of essential vitamins, minerals and other dietary nutrients come from animal pollinated crops, according to a June 2011 study published in PLoS ONE. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables, such as bell peppers and tomatoes, which grow via pollination, are primary sources of key antioxidants, folic acid, lipids and vitamins A, C and E. The study’s team of international researchers highlighted the need for ongoing research into the decline of pollinators in order to continue feeding a growing human population.
As someone who enjoys eating, Jeff Miller founded DC Honeybees, a nonprofit that supports bee colonies in urban environments.
He said D.C. is not naturally thought of as a place to cultivate honey bees, but the dearth of pollinating species in the city makes for less competition. The fact that many residents keep hives on their balconies and roofs serves to protect bees from dirt-dwelling parasites, such as the small hive beetle.
“Some say it’s less work than a dog, more than a cat,” Miller said about maintaining beehives. “I would argue that it’s less work than a dog, more than a goldfish.”
Similar to national averages, 30 to 40 percent of area bee colonies die during the winter in losses unrelated to CCD. Honey bees become inactive during winter, but can survive the chilly months by clustering for warmth.
“When winter comes, we sit here and pray,” Miller said.
Cultivating honey remains a hobby for Price, who started beekeeping on his Gainesville, Va., farm on a whim nine years ago. He eventually founded Sweet Virginia, a nonprofit that trades homegrown honey for monetary donations to area charities. The organization has raised an estimated $100,000 since inception.
Most experienced backyard beekeepers in D.C. produce between 50 and 100 pounds of honey every year. Sweet Virginia created more than 1,600 pounds of honey last year and Price aims to produce two tons of honey in 2012.
Some apiarists wind up inadvertently treating humans as well as tending to honey bee needs. Price said many people tell him that the complex profile of local honey helped relieve their seasonal allergies because their immune systems grew accustomed to the offending pollen.
“You’re really like a veterinarian of bees,” said Price. “That’s why it’s called beekeeping.”