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Legal bees in the city have urban beekeepers abuzz

Jeff Miller, founder of Georgetown Honeybee Company, has two hives on his roof and another 25 across the city. He's one of a number of urban apiarists who've taken to raising bees in the city

This is how bees are shipped through the USPS

Jeff Miller prepares to smoke one of the hives he keeps on his Georgetown roof. The smoke calms the bees down

Georgetown Honeybee honey, available online

Beekeepers in the city, their hives newly legalized, are helping the environment and making some sweet cash on the side.
There’s nothing new about keeping bees in the city, says Toni Burnham. She brandishes a 1914 article from Popular Mechanics magazine featuring a female stenographer running a “profitable bee farm” on a Philadelphia rooftop.

“Although the building is in the center of the business district and apparently miles from a pasture ground for the bees,” the article states, “they find the flowers somewhere, collect the honey and fly back to their hives without seeming to object at all to their metropolitan mode of life.”

Hopefully, the bees still feel the same about city life, because their presence in the District and other urban areas is on a steady rise.

Burnham, president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association and an urban beekeeper since 2005, says “everybody thought they were the only beekeeper in Washington, D.C.” when she started.

Now, “we’re not cool because we’re the only ones. We’re cool because we’re part of this tradition that goes back 6,000 years,” she says.

Through the growth of local beekeeping groups, Burnham now knows there are dozens more who practice and many others harboring apiary aspirations as a way to improve the local environment (or their personal gardens).

This spring, 60 new households completed her short course on keeping bees taught through The DC Beekeepers Alliance in partnership with local universities. Jeff Miller started DC Honeybees three years ago to revive the local honeybee population in response to Colony Collapse Disorder. Since then, he’s helped some 200 people become beekeepers in the city, selling some of them bee packages through his Georgetown Honeybee Co. and helping them navigate local beekeeping laws.

D.C. law is beginning to catch up with the robust local interest in urban beekeeping, but its directives are not quite clear.
Are bees legal?
Mayor Vincent Gray’s Sustainable D.C. Act of 2012, which began going into effect early last year, specifically allows the keeping of honeybees as part of a broader effort to add 20 acres of cultivated land for growing food in the city by 2032.

Under the new law (starting on page 15), beekeepers may keep no more than four hives per one-quarter acre of property and they must obtain a permit from the Mayor, though the specific process for doing so has not yet been established.

Previously, they were subject to a two-line section of a 1981 law that said no bees or hives of bees could be kept within 500 feet of a home. The law also contained a nebulous caveat that this provision does not apply to “bees confined in hives” or bees that “cannot stray from the property.”

“Most of the people before 2005 persisted in beekeeping with the belief that it was illegal in the District and there was no point in changing it,” says Burnham, who went to great lengths to understand — and then help change — the existing laws before joining their ranks.

She said the beekeeping laws as currently written won’t go into effect until all the laws included in the Sustainable DC Act are completed, which could happen by the end of the summer.
"You legalized what?"
Burnham says the new rules are not perfect, but District regulators have been open to the input of beekeepers during the process.

“They’re walking a fine line with a whole bunch of District residents whose first reaction to this is ‘You legalized what?’” Burnham says of beekeeping’s newly legal status.
Bees and food production
But there are plenty of others in the District who need little convincing about the benefits of bees.

A growing shortage of pollinators — whose work is integral to producing one in three bites we take each day — is attracting many new hobbyists to the hive. The District’s newest generation of beekeepers, mostly Millennials, are taking up the hobby as part of a renewed interest in growing or connecting to the source of their food.

While the average beekeeper nationwide is a male in his early 50s, the typical apiarist in D.C. is a female in her 30s, Burnham says.

Bees are key to growing productive urban farms and gardens. The DC Beekeepers manage hives for several government entities and nonprofits that see the bees as a boon for such spaces.

The group of volunteers manages hives for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation at four different sites in the city, including two community gardens and two rooftops, in Trinidad, in Columbia Heights, and more.

Josh Singer, community garden specialist with DPR, says increasing the presence of bees has become a priority for the District government.

“We’re really trying to initiate different food programs, especially in food deserts, so the bees are pretty integral. If you put a beehive next to a garden, you’ll have at least twice the vegetable production,” says Singer, who works with 25 community gardens in the city.

MJ Crom, food growing capacity coordinator at the Capital Area Food Bank, maintains four hives originally donated by the beekeepers group for the food bank’s burgeoning garden. Crom took over management of the hives, which made it through a harshly cold winter, this year.

“As much fun as I have with the bees, the main purpose of the hives is to increase the productivity of the garden,” says Crom, who might also use the pollinators for educational projects in the future.

“I don’t have anything to compare it to, really, but this garden is extremely productive and fruitful compared to past gardens” she’s managed.
The sweet end of the deal
Besides the ecological excuses for hosting bees, some D.C. residents keep them for more less esoteric reasons: they want the honey.

Ray Von Culin started Capital Honey Co., the only fully licensed honey company in the District, with his wife to meet local demand for the artisanal, allergy-fighting elixir.

The couple now keeps between 15 and 20 hives in the District and sells honey at area farmers markets and shops until they run out each year. Von Culin says he’d like to see more honey companies enter the D.C. market, but the regulatory process for starting a bee-based business can be harrowing.

“Beekeeping is difficult because, first and foremost, you’re farming,” says Von Culin, who’s an urban planner by trade.  “But we’re here, and we’re happy that beekeeping is taking hold.”

Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture, and the environment and lives in Alexandria, Va. She writes about food, etc. at thinkabouteat.com.
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