Stepping up onto the rooftop of Lisner Hall, an academic building of the George Washington University in downtown DC means stepping into the world of honeybees. Twelve hives live on the rooftop here, producing honey for the Founding Farmers restaurant located just two blocks away.
On September tenth, I, along with ten other volunteers, put on a thick, white, astronaut-like suit and round mesh hat with face screens that covered every inch of my body. We were part of the GWU Undergraduate Honey Bee Research Laboratory and Apiary, also known as GWBuzz, for the day. The lab works to promote sustainable and healthy apiculture in the midst of Washington, DC, in partnership with Founding Farmers. The restaurant uses the honey in their craft cocktails and honey butter cornbread.
With our bee suits on, we were ready to head up to the rooftop. We used hive tools to jimmy the sticky frames loose, making sure to avoid harming any bees in the process. After collecting the frames bursting with honey, we started to outfit the hives for the winter. Before the temperatures start rising, summer screens are put into the hives to allow for better air circulation; if the air is too hot, the bees will not be as productive because, just like us, the heat wipes them out! We swapped out the summer grates for winter covers and checked on the health of the hives.
Signs of a healthy hive include high bee activity, bees carrying pollen back into the hive and any sight of brood. Brood, also known as bee larvae, is developed after the queen bee lays her eggs in the comb cells of the hive. We had the joy of spotting all of these signs of a healthy hive when we were on the roof and even saw a mature bee hatching out of a comb cell!
Managing to escape sting-free, we moved inside to process the honey from the frame to the bottle. First, we used combs to uncap the honeycombs on the frames. The frames are then placed inside a honey centrifuge. Here, the frames are spun so fast the honey flows out through the bottom tap, which is why it is so important for the honeycombs to be uncapped before being placed in the centrifuge; this process ensures we harvest as much honey as we possibly can. When it flows out of the centrifuge it is pushed through a sieve to collect any stray wax that may have gotten stuck, before hitting the collection bucket. We managed to collect 175 pounds of honey that day!
Of course, we couldn’t go through the process without tasting some of the honey. It was amazing to taste the different flavor notes of the honey from each frame. While some were notably sweeter, others had more floral notes and others were almost tart. Some people believe that honey produced in the city can have even more flavor profiles than honey produced in the countryside, due to the abundant and varied flora blooming in cities.
Next time you are at Founding Farmers, keep an eye out for the cornbread and the cocktails infused with honey; you may just be tasting the hard work of the GW honeybees.