The Rise of Urban Beekeeping in Washington

Colony Collapse Disorder is a real concern—but some backyard beekeepers are trying to combat it.

By: Nicholas Hunt

The disappearance of honeybees has been well documented in the media, and a new study released this October has spurred another round of media coverage of the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

It is not as if the coverage is unwarranted. Honeybees are important for more reasons than just the sticky, golden stuff, however delicious. According to the USDA, one out of three bites of food we eat is the result of honeybee pollination, and honeybees do an amazing $200 billion dollars worth of work every year, as estimated by the United Nations. Their disappearance is scary stuff, but all the media coverage has led to a curious outcome—a rise in urban beekeeping.

“We were losing a third of the nation’s honeybee hives every year for five consecutive years,” says Dr. Jeff Pettis, research leader at the USDA’s Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. “With all that attention, backyard/urban beekeeping has just exploded.”

Metropolitan Washington is a bit of a mecca for urban beekeeping. Pettis’s Bee Lab has been referred to as the nation’s flagship (though Pettis dislikes that label). One local beekeeper has called Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland professor and founder of the Bee Informed Partnership a “rock star bee scientist,” perhaps because of his TED talk. There are hives scattered in backyards across Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. In DC, hives can be found at various government agencies, at George Washington University, and even on a townhouse rooftop in Georgetown.

The hives at the Washington Youth Garden at the National Arboretum won this year’s Best Tasting Honey award at the DC State Fair (out of 16 entries), and the White House’s colonies are known for bringing in record harvests.

“We are so lucky here in DC,” says Antoinette “Toni” Burnham, who has been keeping bees in DC since 2005 and runs Citybees, a blog about urban beekeeping. “Our honey is absolutely fabulous. It can stand up to any honey, anywhere.”

Pettis agrees. “You would think living in a city wouldn’t be that productive,” he says, “but it is actually very high-quality honey.”

The key, he says, is the abundance of green space and flower gardens in the city, helped by a lack of competition from other pollinators. Burnham takes it a step further and compares it to making a fine wine.

“It is a picture of specific place at a specific time, and DC is a beautiful picture,” she says.

Like wine, honey has high notes and low notes, aromas, and balance. Burnham describes the Washington Youth Garden’s winning entry as dark, though not as dark as buckwheat, with medium sweetness and a “warm, coffee-ish” middle. Last year the winner’s sweetness was moderated by a mellow, tulip-poplar note.

Though she likes what the increase in hobbyist beekeeping is doing for the bee population, Burnham thinks education about the insect’s environmental importance is just as important as maintaining hives.

“My nightmare is an urban hipster who just plops a hive down in his backyard and doesn’t know what to do with it,” she says.

That’s where Larry Marling and his wife, Karen, come in. They saw an untapped market and started Eco HoneyBees, which installs and maintains custom hives for homeowners in the Washington area.

“With all the attention surrounding the plight of the honeybees, we don’t have to do much convincing,” Marling says by phone. In the background, the buzzing of his thousands of bees is clear. “People all want to do something, but they don’t know what to do.”

Karen Marling started the business two years ago, and together she and Larry manage 50 hives. Business is good enough that they have to turn potential costumers away to keep it manageable for two people, Larry says.

Their business is unique, he explains, because no one else maintains backyards hives for their costumers. The service includes monthly visits to check the health of each colony and treat illness. In spring they use their “extraction van,” a vintage VW, harvest the honey, and present it to the hive owner. Their average harvest is about 20 to 40 pounds per hive.

To combat CCD, Virginia will start issuing $200 grants to backyard beekeepers in 2013. That is about two-fifths the cost of one of the Marling’s hives. Planning for a corresponding increase in demand, Larry expects to take on two more employees for the busy spring months.

“We’re trying to expand the business in a sane fashion, because these are living creatures. We care really deeply about every hive we sell,” he says. Larry refers to his bees as a “big box of girls.”

While Virginia has embraced beekeeping, DC doesn’t know what to do with it. The laws regarding beekeeping in the District are murky enough that one local beekeeper would only talk off the record.

DC’s regulation of bees comes in two parts. Part one: No bees or hives of bees within 500 feet of human habitation. Part two: Part one does not apply to bees confined to a hive or property.

The problem, says the anonymous beekeeper, is that you can’t confine bees to a hive. They die if you do.

So far, no one has been fined or charged with beekeeping, says Burnham, and there is a lively community of beekeepers in the city looking to get the regulations changed.

Liability is an issue, but one thing everyone in the beekeeping community agrees on is that it’s not honeybees people should be worried about. Bees are not naturally aggressive, says Pettis—it’s the wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets that will get you.