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Readying the smoker.

Before GreenDC Realty owner Michael Kiefer sold houses, before he built houses, before he even spent time on dairy farms in Finland and the Peace Corps in Ukraine, he went to school for apiculture—raising bees.

Soon after he moved to the northeast D.C. neighborhood of Langdon, Keifer reclaimed that part of his childhood, setting up a couple of beehives behind his house. Back then, the city wasn’t quite clear on whether beekeeping was allowed.

“Nobody said anything if you had them,” Kiefer says, “but nobody talked about having them.”

Then came the Obamas’ garden, and The Secret Life of Bees, and publicity around the sad fate of honey-producing insects. The Fairmont Hotel started raising bees on its rooftop, and the District offered a class in urban apiculture—it’s totally a big deal. Now, Kiefer is helping staff at the nearby National Arboretum bring hives from their research area out into the public view, and offered Housing Complex a tour of his backyard bee farm.

This past Saturday morning, Kiefer was checking in on his three hives—essentially wooden boxes that you can order online. The bee colonies help keep his garden of fruit trees, tomatoes, salad greens, herbs, and all kinds of berries in producing in overdrive, yielding more than enough crops to share with neighbors and friends. His next project is a chicken coop. (Inside the house, he also grows the South American hallucinogen ayahuasca, which he uses in ceremonies conducted by a Peruvian shaman a couple times a year.)

Apiculturists try to deal with their bees in the early morning, as they’re just waking up; the sixty to seventy thousand bees in one three-year old hive buzzed lazily as the sun hit them. Still, to keep them calm while he opens the hive, Kiefer sprays the bees with sugar water, which starts them cleaning the sticky sweetness off of each others’ wings. If that fails, he’ll use a smoker with pine needles burning inside to disorient them.

He’s especially cautious with the “Caucasian” or “Russian” variety, which are more aggressive than their “Italian” cousins. Keifer recalls once dropping a piece of the hive box, and instantly regretting it.

“The whole hive exited, saw me, and I had to run,” he says. “It was like a cartoon.”

The Caucasian bees, in their three-year-old hive, had sealed the wooden pieces of the hive closed so well with propolis produced from tree resin—naturally weatherizing their home—that Kiefer couldn’t even pry off the top without help. But a younger hive was easier to disassemble, and Kiefer scraped some honey off into a bowl.

Housing Complex can testify that it was delicious.

Photos by Lydia DePillis.

Mmmm....bee barf.
Too much propolis!