WASHINGTON — Guests at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner are often witness to an usual sight in the clean and quiet lobby of the modern, business-travel hotel.
It’s when Executive Chef Tom Elder takes a break from the busy kitchen inside the hotel’s restaurant Härth and heads up to the roof wearing an all-white space-like suit, with gloves and a protective hat and veil.
“It’s a conversation starter,” Elder says.
That’s for sure. Because when guests give him a quizzical look or ask him what he’s doing, Elder tells them about the 200,000 honeybees he keeps on the roof.
Capitol Hill resident Toni Burnham calls April 9 her “Bee Day,” and she celebrates this holiday every year.
Nine years ago on April 9, the former dot-commer first became interested in honeybees after hearing a story on BBC about urban beekeeping in London. The segment prompted Burnham to register for a beekeeping class, and the rest is history.
“I’m afraid to report that bees ate my brain,” she says.
Now, Burnham is the founder of the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance and president of Maryland State Beekeepers — two associations that provide education for those interested in learning about beekeeping and a continual exchange for those who practice it.
“We’re a community. We’ve got each other’s backs. We want this to work for everybody,” Burnham says.
In 2012, D.C.’s Sustainable Urban Agriculture Apiculture Act removed limitations and confusion surrounding beekeeping laws previously in place. Both Maryland and Virginia have laws for beekeepers, as well.
Throughout the years, Burnham says she has seen an increasing number of people take interest in beekeeping. She believes a lot of it is due to Colony Collapse Disorder, an unidentified decline in the honeybee population.
CCD has been a cause of concern for many scientists and agricultural experts around the world, since one-third of our food supply is directly or indirectly linked to honeybee pollination. Additionally, bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 million in increased crop value each year, according to the USDA.
From what Burnham can tell, it’s no longer a concern limited to scientists and agricultural experts: it’s one more and more individuals are taking into their own hands.
“What’s happening is the big farm operations are kind of having a hard time keeping it together, but little by little, groups of, what I call ‘the Birkenstock beekeepers,’ people like me who keep bees primarily for environmental reasons, are having one or two hives,” Burnham says.
“I think people do it because they want to help. And also, it’s pretty cool. You can stop conversation pretty fast when you say, ‘Hey, I’m a beekeeper.'”
The decline in honeybees is why the Hilton’s Elder decided four years ago to keep four hives on the hotel’s roof.
“As being a part of the community, we wanted to do something about (CCD), and bringing bees in was kind of a natural thing for us,” Elder says. “If there was no pollination going on, one-third of our food would not be available to us.”
A Hive-to-Table Food Moment
Burnham says it’s traditional for beekeepers not to reveal the location of their apiaries to the public, but she knows hives are all over the city.
“I can tell you there are bees on private property all across Washington and there have been for years,” she says.
Some of these locations include parks and recreation centers, community gardens, George Washington University, the White House, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, the Historic Congressional Cemetery, the Franciscan Monastery, several churches and hotels.
Elder is not the only person who keeps bees on top of a local hotel. Ian Bens, executive sous chef at the Fairmont in Georgetown, does as well. He put three hives on the hotel’s roof five years ago.
“They’ll fly up to five miles … so they’re foraging in Rock Creek Park and all of the trees in the few blocks around the hotel,” says Bens, who has taken on the title of beekeeper since setting up the hives.
While both Elder and Bens keep their hives as a way to increase pollination in their local communities, they also reap a great benefit from the bees: the honey.
Bens’ hives produce around 100 pounds of honey a year, and he includes his rooftop honey in menu items, such as the Fairmont’s BeeTini, a honey walnut bread, a grapefruit and honey crème brulee and as an accompaniment on cheese plates. He also uses the nutrient-packed pollen he collects from the hives in some of his dishes.
“We’ve made pollen ice cream and pollen mousses, and we actually sprinkle this pollen on our salad,” he says.
Another bee bi-product Bens uses is propolis, or bee glue, which the bees use to literally glue down everything in their hive to prevent other insects from entering. It’s anti-fungal and anti-bacterial, so it protects the bees.
“It’s got a really interesting aroma of like saps and resins and has a really, really interesting flavor. We’ll mix that with some of the honey and make a propolis honey. It’s incredible,” Bens says.
Similarly, Elder incorporates his honey yields in a yogurt parfait, on charcuterie and cheese plates, and in the hotel’s signature bacon jam, made of rooftop honey, muscovado sugar and applewood smoked bacon.
“What’s trending in the professional world is the fact that we’re very well aware of keeping the local and regional products in our kitchens … We’re trying to stay closer to home,” Elder says.
A Honeybee Soap Opera
Burnham says one of her favorite aspects of beekeeping is observing the bees and watching their behaviors and tendencies.
“When you look inside a beehive, what you’ve got is a soap opera in a box,” she says. “Some bees are obsessive-compulsive cleaner bees and some bees are laidback, ‘Hey, let’s enjoy life bees.’ Some bees are real disease resistant, but also maybe a little cranky … I like to have a cup of coffee and sit outside the entry of my beehive and watch what they’re doing.”
What they’re doing is a whole lot of work while they keep the queen happy and forage for food. The job of the beekeeper, Burnham says, is to figure out what’s going on in the hive so you can figure out how best to help them.
“Do they need more space? Are they finding adequate food? Is there a disease in there?”
Burnham says watching what the bees bring back into the hive is especially interesting. When the bees collect the pollen, they pack it on their legs. Depending on the color of their legs, you can see where they visited that day.
“Sometimes you see them flying in and they’ve got these really ugly yellow jeggings on, and that would be maple. And when it’s olive (colored), it’s probably willow … So you can almost see the flowers that are blooming in your neighborhood by looking at the back legs of the bees,” Burnham says.
The Fairmont’s Bens also enjoys watching the interactions of the bees in their bee society — especially the worker bees, which are all female. There are many different roles for the worker bees, and one in particular is that of an undertaker.
“Bees are very, very clean, so as soon as one dies, they get rid of it,” Bens explains.
The male bees in the hive serve only one purpose in bee society: to help procreate. They do no work around the hive and they eat more food than the other bees, which is why at the end of the year, the worker bees give them the boot.
“You can actually physically see, around October, the worker bees dragging these (males) out of the hive and kicking them right out,” Bens says.
Stefano Briguglio has been keeping bees for about 10 years on his farm Azure in Charles County, Md. There, he raises and sells bees and beekeeping equipment. In case you’re interested, a 3 pound package of honeybees and a mated queen costs $150 from Briguglio.
Similar to Burnham, he has also seen an increase in the number of people interested in beekeeping.
“It’s kind of falling in line with the whole green revolution where people are trying to get closer to their food,” Briguglio says. “It’s growing every year; more and more people of all ages.”
In addition to selling bees, Briguglio provides education courses and tours of his 30 hives to school children and other interested groups.
When he first started keeping bees, he says he was nervous to open a hive. Now, he goes in without any protection.
“The bees will always find a way under your protective clothing, under your veil, so the best approach is to keep your bees calm. Respect them when you’re going through their house,” Briguglio says.
Beekeepers Burnham, Bens and Elder are less relaxed with their caretaking approach. All three of them wear some sort of protective elements when checking in on their bees — but they don’t have to put that equipment on all too often.
Bee maintenance is an ebb and flow. Hives require very few check-ins in the winter months; time spent with the bees picks up slightly in the spring and summer months.
The honey harvest typically takes place in mid-summer, and before the winter comes, beekeepers need to prep their hives and make sure there is enough food to last the bees through the winter.
The Fairmont’s Bens says he typically checks in on his bees six or seven times a year.
“We’re checking to make sure there are eggs, basically you’re checking to make sure the queen is healthy,” he says.
Those starting a hive typically need to have everything set up by April or May, at the latest. And before that happens, the experts strongly recommend taking a course in beekeeping.
“Especially for people in urban areas, you really do need to educate yourself to do this,” Burnham says. “In the city, we have these priorities that have to be about the neighbors.”
“It’s a trade and an art that you need to have experience with because you can’t just grab bees and start doing it,” says the Hilton’s Elder.
Burnham is currently in the middle of teaching a sold-out, 60-person class on beekeeping in conjunction with the University of the District of Columbia. The curriculum she uses is being implemented by more than 500 beekeepers in the greater metro area.
Burnham makes it clear that keeping bees is more than a hobby. For her, it’s a passion and a way of living a sustainable life.
“I live in a different place since I started keeping bees,” she says. “Be nice to (beekeepers). We’re trying to do everything we can to help.”