John Fry, an LSE alumnus (MSc International Relations, Politics of the World Economy, 1994) keeps bees in Washington DC. First published on LSE’s Sustainability blog, John shares his experiences of beekeeping in the US, including laws that banned beekeeping, and a nifty trick to control varroa mites…
People around the world think of Washington, DC as little more than the location of the White House and the US Federal government. But socially conscious citizens engage in a wide range of activities that make the DC Capital Region a great place to live. One of those activities is beekeeping. From 1981 until 2012, it was illegal to keep bees in the District because of a misguided law that forbade bee hives within 500 feet (150 meters) of a home. Beekeepers risked fines and confiscation of their colonies. But a 2012 law focusing on sustainability now permits legal beekeeping and brought backyard hives out of the shadows. Bee hives are now on the roofs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and colonial row houses in Georgetown. Even in the British Embassy has one.
Either legally or illegally, hundreds have taken up beekeeping over the past few years. Since 2011, 200 spots have filled quickly for beekeeping classes taught by the DC Beekeepers Alliance and the Northern Virginia Beekeeping Teaching Consortium. Dozens of “newbees” are also on waiting lists. The eight-week course teaches sustainable beekeeping with either Langstroth or Kenyan top bar hives, using a minimum of chemicals or antibiotics. Instructors provide practical tips for building hives, acquiring bees, and keeping them alive. Mentors answer questions for new beekeepers after the colonies are set up in beeyards. Langstroth hives are more common because bees in Kenyan top bar hives have trouble surviving the cold winter months. Top bar hives are built horizontally rather than vertically; vertical hives seem to retain heat better as it rises from the cluster.
Because of its population density, Washington, DC has no commercial farms so bees are unlikely to encounter pesticides such as neonicotinoids. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a rare occurrence among urban beekeepers in the DC Capital Region because we are not exposed to pesticides and the bees are not trucked around the country for pollination. Occasionally, a beekeeper will lose a colony because a neighbor sprayed for mosquitos, but summer spraying has declined significantly over the last few years. The public is more aware of the negative impact on pollinators such as native bumble bees and honey bees.
Honey bees in the DC Capital Region suffer most from varroa mites and small hive beetles. Beekeepers who are reluctant to use chemicals to lower their mite loads try natural remedies such as shaking powdered sugar through the hives to encourage cleaning behavior among the bees. But these methods have a limited effect. More recently, beekeepers have started removing queens from the hives once a year during a period of heavy nectar flow, normally 15 April through 15 May locally. By halting the brood cycle of the colony, varroa mites stop breeding as well. Removing the queens also discourages swarming, leaves more room in hives for honey production, and allows for the creation of nucleus colonies, known as “nucs”. A nuc is very popular as a reliable starter colony and sells for up to $150 (£100).
Small hive beetles are an emerging pest for local beekeepers, and we are still working through solutions to the problem. Strong colonies can drive small hive beetles to the top and bottom of the hives, where they are caged in propolis enclosures or dropped through steel mesh to the ground. But weak colonies need additional assistance. Beekeepers typically use beetle traps between hive frames which are filled with vegetable oil. Bees drive the beetles into the traps and they drown.
The demand for local honey has never been greater, with direct to consumer sales topping $11 per pound (£16 per kilogram). Consumers are keen to use local honey to lessen the effects of pollen allergies. Honey types include acacia, sourwood (a delightful honey with an anise aftertaste), and tulip poplar (an amber honey with a slight molasses taste). Many beekeepers also use beeswax and propolis to make candles, lip balm, lotion bars, and propolis throat sprays. The community of beekeepers warmly welcomes new members, and we help each other through mentoring programs. Even with ongoing challenges, the future of urban beekeeping in Washington, DC is very bright indeed.