It’s March: The Beekeepers’ Busy Season

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Winter is finally waning. Crocus and early bloomers are starting to push up, and that can only mean one thing for our beekeepers—time to get busy.  The honeybees have been enjoying a quiet winter in the hive. But come March, the queen bee begins producing large quantities of eggs and soon the bees realize that housing is getting tight. That sends them swarming in search of new locations and beekeepers have to get busy. It is the bee’s own March madness.

DC Beekeepers Alliance
In 2012, local beekeepers, a tight knit group of hobbyists, came together and formed the DC Beekeepers Alliance. Jan Day, the current President, says it has been an incredibly active ten years, driven forward by passage of the Sustainable DC Act of 2012. The Act created a legal structure for beekeeping in DC and a program administered by the DC Department of the Environment (DDOE). Natasha Garcia Anderson is the Fish and Wildlife Biologist at DDOE who oversees the city’s bees.  She reports that there are 34 apiaries (the correct term for a collection of beehives) in the 20002 and 20003 zip codes.  Each location could have up to four hives.

The 2012 Act requires beekeepers to register their colonies with DDOE. Jan says this is helpful to the beekeepers. If there are going to be pesticides sprayed or other activities that would harm the bees, the city is able to notify the impacted beekeepers so they can take proactive measures to protect the bees.  No one is allowed to have more than four hives on land less than one-quarter acre. Beekeepers must set their hives more than 15 feet from a property line, provide a fly zone, and seek permission from neighbors. They must also provide a water source for the bees. Permits are also required for a beekeeper to transport the bees to a new location. The city can come and inspect a location at its discretion. And finally, the beekeeper is responsible for remediation if bees swarm and cause a nuisance.

The DC Beekeepers Alliance maintains a very good website, http://www.dcbeekeepers.org and the DDOE also can provide assistance at www.doee.dc.gov.

Beekeeping Classes
Each January, the Beekeepers Alliance provides a beekeeping course for beginners.

A swarm of bees is part of the annual spring process, and can be frightening, but in the hands of certified beekeepers they are a goldmine. Photo: Del Voss – DC Beekeepers Alliance

The class runs for eight weeks and totals 16 hours of instruction.  Hopefully, this spring COVID restrictions will be lifted enough for two class sessions to be taught in person. “Build Day” teaches new beekeepers how to construct the hives and other components and “Field Day” introduces students to bees. The class, usually about 60 students strong, is jointly sponsored with the University of the District of Columbia and is taught by active volunteer beekeepers. Members of the Alliance receive priority access to the class and registration usually begins in early December. The class fills up very quickly.  If you complete the eight weeks, you are certified as a DC beekeeper. Del Voss, a Capitol Hill resident who has been beekeeping for decades, says finding a bee mentor is essential in the beginning.  He was Jan’s mentor when she got started. “There is so much to learn in the beginning and, of course you want to have a successful experience with the bees,” says Del. He says that beekeepers can experience disease and other unexpected events that result in losing their entire hive.

In the DMV area, there are other well-regarded bee associations that offer courses including The Northern Virginia Beekeepers, The Virginia Beekeeping Teacher Consortium, The Bowie-upper Marlboro (Prince George’s County) Beekeepers and the Montgomery County Beekeepers.  And of course, there are many resources available online.

Jan says not all students in the course start hives once they complete the course.  Some people sign up just to learn more about bees and what they can do to encourage pollinators.  Educating kids and families early is also part of DC Beekeepers’ mission, and, for the past two years, all third-grade students at Maury Elementary School at 1250 Constitution Avenue, NE, take part in the DC Beekeepers Junior Beekeeping program.  During the eight-week unit on bees, students learn about the environment, pollination and plant life.

The Spring Swarm
When a queen bee starts laying eggs in the spring, she can lay 1,000 to 1,500 eggs a day. Soon the hive is just too full, and the bee colony will split into one or two new colonies which is when bees swarm. The worker bees left behind begin the process of choosing eggs, one of which will become the new queen. For non-beekeepers, seeing thousands of bees flying near you can be frightening. The DC Beekeepers Alliance receives calls daily from residents asking for help, and they are more than happy to send experienced beekeepers out to collect the colony. It is a win win for the resident and the beekeeper because collecting swarms is a way for beekeepers to supply their hives without having to pay for the bees. Toni Burnham, a long-time beekeeper on Capitol Hill and a member of the Alliance, fields the calls and reports that last year DC experienced a very swarm-filled spring. The Alliance now has placed 60 swarm traps throughout the city. The beekeepers monitor the traps and if a colony moves in, they move the bees to a full-sized beehive and then re-bait the trap.

You are doing a great favor to report a swarm. If you are seeing swarms inside houses, garages, or hollows in trees as opposed to out in the open, the Alliance can help you identify a qualified beekeeper to remove the swarm, but you will be charged for the work.  If you see a swarm, do not spray pesticide; call 202-255-4318 if you have a swarm you want collected.

In the summer and fall, DC beekeepers sell the local honey at Eastern Market, and other venues around the Hill. Photo: Del Voss – DC Beekeepers Alliance

Honey
Honey is one of nature’s greatest products and the reward beekeepers receive for helping the bees exist. Del harvests several hundred pounds of honey a year, but some must remain in the hives for the bees to use themselves. Most DC honey is harvested in the summer or early fall. If beekeepers choose to sell their honey, it is regulated by the DC cottage industry regulations.  “You will see pollen in the local honey you buy,” says Del.  “It is what distinguishes local honey from the honey you buy at the grocery store.”  It is the pollen that makes honey taste different, depending on what kind of pollen has been collected by the bees. “I can taste the difference,” says Del, “between honey from my hives around Stanton Park, and those around Lincoln Park.”

Jan says when the Alliance began 10 years ago, there were 22 hives and last year 140 hives were registered.  Soon a new class of beekeepers will be certified, increasing opportunities for more hives and honey.  The Alliance is always looking for new sites for the bees so contact them if you would like to host a beehive.

Rindy O’Brien applauds the DC Beekeepers for their work. Contact Rindy at rindyobrien@gmail.com