Urban Beekeeper

Story and Photos by Peter O’Brien

It was a good day in May for bees, cloudy, but not raining. If it’s raining or stormy, bees are edgy. They don’t fly in the rain.

Laura Ann Elkins, a stay-at-home mom and a backyard beekeeper on the District side in Old Takoma, brought out two bee suits.  Clothed in face nets and the rest of the safety gear, we went into her yard to take a look at her hives.  Inside one of the frames she found a queen, identifiable by her larger abdomen.  “So there is a new queen,” she said.  “I think we are going to name her Nubia.”  Later she found eggs in another hive she was inspecting, more good news. 

While she was inspecting the hives, someone Laura knew happened to drive by. “Getting much honey?” he called out.

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There is no honey yet for this year, but last year Laura and her family
–  her physician husband Andrew Catanzaro and their two young children
– ate about 25 pounds of the light brown sweet harvest she extracted
from the hives.  Laura also gave away many jars as gifts and sold a few
to break even on beekeeping costs.  A basic hive kit sells for about
$300.

Laura’s honey is of mixed variety. Tupelo honey cultivators try to be
specific, but, she said, “Around here most honey is derived from tulip
poplars and black locust.”

Beekeeping started for Elkins in the spring of 2007 when she offered to
keep a hive for another mother. She loved watching the bees, and
wintered the hive that year, then took it over.   Since moving with her
husband into the neighborhood in 2001 Laura had always done a lot of
gardening out back. “The bees were a natural extension to that,” she
said.

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Bee not afraid. Laura Elkins is teaching her kids that bees have a sweet side.

Laura has four hives now, three at her house and one at a neighbor’s.
One of her queen bees is named Fritzie, after Takoma Park artist
Fritzie Seidler.

For new beekeepers, she cautioned against starting out in the spring,
advising them first to take the class on beekeeping offered in February
from the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association, and then find a
mentor. Finding a mentor shouldn’t be too difficult. She noted that
there were many urban beekeepers, and probably more in Takoma, D.C.
than other places. 

Laura identified Toni Burnham, who keeps bees on the White House
grounds, as her mentor. Her blog (http://citybees.blogspot.com) “is fun
to read,” she said.
Laura says beekeepers help each other out.  But if you share equipment,
she says, “you have to be careful who you share with” so as not to
spread disease.
It’s possible to spend eight hours together splitting hives, which she
did recently with George Kervitsky in Kensington, a beekeeper who
doesn’t use chemicals, has a feral hive, and gets his bees from Amish
small cell bees that are relatively free of mites.

Mites weaken bees, and a mite-infested colony collapses. Many other
factors are involved in the weakened system of the bee. “It’s
definitely not cell phones,” she joked.

Laura read in a science article that honey is now being in wound care
as an antiseptic, and that it may also be used to treat diabetic
ulcers.  Beeswax has always been common in ointments. To make lip balm,
beeswax is combined with sweet almond oil, and for hand cream, one
recipe requires beeswax, olive oil, palm oil, and coconut oil. Laura
makes both. For every seven pounds of honey, she gets a pound of wax.

As for bee stings, she says the risk of going into anaphylactic shock
is minimal. For most people the sting hurts, swells up, itches and goes
away. She knows a beekeeper who says the stings don’t even hurt anymore.

Elkins closes her emails with a Japanese proverb: “Vision without
action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” For a
beekeeper, the quote is apt.

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