Jeff Miller rolls up in his BMW convertible to the gleaming new headquarters of NPR one wet, gusty Monday morning. Miller, a real estate developer, isn’t there to check out the building, a modern mass of concrete and glass and lights on North Capitol Street. He’s delivering cargo: 20,000 European honey bees, buzzing in two wooden boxes destined for NPR’s rooftop.
Miller moonlights as a beekeeper with DC Honeybees, a nonprofit devoted to growing and sustaining bee colonies in the city, and NPR is the latest to solicit his services. Miller has already installed 100 hives this year (including one at a house in Tenleytown earlier that morning), a huge uptick from the 50 he set up during his first year with DC Honeybees in 2009.
Miller is joined by Katy Nally, a 25-year-old Center for Clean Air Policy employee with a bee tattoo behind her ear, who assists with installations. Maury Schlesinger, NPR’s director of real estate and administrative services, follows as Miller pushes a dolly stacked with a vat of sugar water and the two bee boxes through the back channels of the NPR building.
They take an elevator to NPR’s green roof, an otherworldly terrain dotted with tiny plants (the green part) and satellite dishes (the public radio part). An owl statue stands guard over the corner of the roof where the bees will live. Miller and Nally get to work, setting up what will be the hive as the wind and drizzle whips around them.
Schlesinger films and snaps photos with a tablet, a huge smile on his face. He says his colleagues are delighted to have bees upstairs. “It’s very NPRness,” he says.
Urban beekeeping is just the latest piece of the sustainability movement that has for years been working its way through the District’s buildings. A green roof has already become de rigeur for many buildings in D.C., which boasts two million square feet of green roofing on more than 200 public and private properties. Michael Lucy at the Anacostia Watershed Society, which helps fund green roofs, says he’s seen a “significant uptick” in the number of private homes with green roofs—including a tiny 100-square-foot one on top of a porch, the smallest he’s aware of in D.C.
But a green roof is one thing, and a roof with an apiary is another. The bees on the green roof of an enterprise as dear to liberal hearts as public radio makes NPR the current king of D.C. avant gardening. There’s little practical reason for the organization to maintain bee hives—though a hive can yield up to 100 pounds of honey, there won’t be any for another year, and what it does eventually yield will be split with Miller as a sort of salary for tending to the bees. The only people who will even see the bees are contractors who maintain the roof system, window washers, and satellite engineers. And though D.C. offers a $5 rebate for each square foot of green roof installed, NPR did not seek a cash reward. For NPR, having honey bees upstairs is both a small act of environmental altruism and a bit of brand management. “Our new building is LEED gold, so we’re interested in all things green,” says Joyce Slocum, chief administrative officer at NPR.
Colony collapse disorder, a mysterious phenomenon that has drastically reduced the population of honey bees in the U.S. and Europe, was also of concern. Though records from the past 100 years show that bees have dipped in numbers before, and even disappeared, the phenomenon was renamed in the mid-2000s when beekeepers began reporting colony losses of 30 to 90 percent. The USDA estimates that the U.S. honey bee population is now half of what it was in the 1940s, which can reduce crop yields; the reason for the losses has still not been pinpointed despite extensive research. The idea of contributing to the bee population, even slightly, appealed to NPR, which put up about $800 for its two hives.
And, of course, there was the novelty factor of having honey bees at work, which has had NPR employees buzzing.
“NPR is a little bit quirky,” Slocum says, “and I think the bees fit with our personality. Everybody’s kind of amused by it and happy about it.” The organization plans to distribute small amounts of the honey to visitors at its new building.
Sadly, there are no plans to give away honey as a pledge-drive gift.
On the roof, Nally and Miller are at work setting up a home for NPR’s 20,000 honey bees, which came from Georgia (the bee-supply capital of the East Coast, according to Miller). These bees, a species native to Europe that was introduced to North America by colonists, produce more honey than most bees and are the same type used by commercial pollinators. Miller pours sugar water into the hive—the bees consume a gallon of it a week to gain energy for building honeycombs.
Schlesinger takes note of Miller’s jeans and T-shirt and Nally’s safari-chic linen dress and clogs. Neither of them wear any protective gear as they stand over the hives. “This is not what you think beekeepers look like,” Schlesinger says.
“It’s hard to look cool in a veil,” Miller says. Beyond aesthetics, the low-key beekeeping look is intended to lessen fear about bees. “We try to teach people that these things are not a big deal,” he says. “So you have to be a little bit fearless.” He looks down at the thousands of bees swarming beneath his bare arms and hands. “Or stupid.”
Schlesinger asks him if he’s been stung. “Hundreds of times,” Miller replies. (He will, in fact, be stung on the neck before the morning is over.) Nally points out that he’s been stung in the eye before.
“On the eye,” he corrects her.
“That one was pretty terrible, wouldn’t you say, Jeff?”
“Yeah,” he says cheerfully.
Miller has been at this since 2009, when a lull in the real estate market left him with a lot of time on his hands. (He now works as director of real estate for D.C.’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.) “Always been a foodie, so began planting my own veggies and found I was not getting a lot of yield,” he tells me later in an email. Some personal research turned up information about the importance of bees and the urban hive movement, which inspired Miller to get a hive for his rooftop. “Soon became an addict.”
Miller positions one of the bee boxes over the hive and pries it open. Thousands of bees spill out like jelly beans from an overturned bag. He pounds the end of the box to get out the stragglers. A few dozen fly in the open air, some of them landing on Miller’s shirt and arms. He pays them no attention and holds out a mesh cage a little smaller than a playing card.
“The queen is hanging from a strap in a separate cage,” Miller explains. He brushes the few bees clinging to the outside of the little box with his thumb and points out the queen, who has a longer abdomen and is surrounded by her attendants. Each hive has one queen, the only fertile female in the hive, who can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day and can reign for several years. (The worker bees only live four to six weeks.) Miller opens the queen box and sets it down at an opening in the hive to allow her to walk in.
Nally stands aside and piles her wavy hair on top of her head with one hand.
“I think there’s a bee on my back,” Nally says in the same tone you might use to say, “I think I’ll have chicken for dinner.” She holds still. “I wanted to make sure it didn’t get stuck in my hair.”
During their last installation, Nally says, a bee got tangled in her hair. Did it sting her? “Oh yes,” she says. “On my head.”
Stings aren’t the only potential peril during an installation. During a recent set-up at Union Kitchen, some bees were rudely welcomed to the neighborhood. “They’ve got an auto shop next door,” Miller says, “and a big window with a fan and a vent. When we installed their bees, the bees got sucked in through the fan into their shop. The people in the garage freaked out, and the bees never came back.”
Did they die? “Well, they can’t really live without a hive,” Miller says.
And as Miller and Nally get to work setting up the second bee box, Miller discovers some more bad news: The queen is dead.
“The queen is not viable,” Miller says. He points to the little queen cage from the second box, which holds only the still, curled up bodies of her nurse bees. “There’s all dead soldiers in there.” He explains that there may have already been a queen in the package of 10,000 bees, and when this queen was introduced, the worker bees might not have recognized her pheromone. “She basically smells like an intruder,” Miller says.
Despite the coup, hope is not lost. The thousands of worker bees are still alive, and there could be another queen among them. The queen from the first box has been successfully introduced to her worker bees, who emit a low, intense buzz from their hive. The installation deemed complete, the party rolls back to the elevator and down to the first floor.
Schlesinger, still beaming from the bee show, shows Nally and Miller to the back door at the loading dock. He spies a bee crawling on the floor. Perhaps it was stuck in the empty box Miller wheeled out, or perhaps it had followed the party into the elevator from the roof. But despite welcoming the pleasures of urban gardening and seeing the honey bees, a friendly, nonaggressive species, populate the roof, Schlesinger reacts instinctively: He crushes the bee dead under his shoe.
“I didn’t want it flying into the mailroom,” Schlesinger says. “I’m not proud of it.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Jeff Miller works for D.C.’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development as director of real estate.