Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpIn the secret lives of bees, May marks the middle of “swarm season” when the insects fly and pollinate before the summer season of honey harvesting.

Having sampled homemade honey for sale at the County Fair labeled with Arlington addresses, I recently alighted on a few of our community’s dozen-plus beekeeping entrepreneurs to gather insight on their motivations.

I asked whether their back-to-nature pursuit provokes suburban resistance. Arlington, it turns out, is a beekeeping sweet spot.

Whitney Long has been operating Arlington Ridge Honey since 2006, having set up her first hive in 1980 in California after reading an agricultural cooperative pamphlet. Maintaining a beehive is “physically demanding – it takes several hours of labor over a year for every pound of honey,” says the industrial hygienist. The stands for hives, screens, sieves, protective masks and suits are heavy. “And honey weighs 1 ½ times what water weighs,” she says.

Long designed her honey’s label after a focus group with workmates. “I bottle it and sell at the Aurora Women’s Club Boutique’s holiday charity.” This earns sometimes $1,200 a year, nearly all of which goes to taxes or back into the enterprise. Her neighbors are enthusiastic, Long adds, allowing that her family members have been stung once or twice. “It’s not a real problem if you’re not messing with bees.”

John Fry, a trade analyst who runs Victory Honey in South Arlington, got started in 2010 after taking an eight-week course from the 200-member Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia. “I would characterize it as a sideline business rather than a hobby,” he says. “Considering the time I spend away from family doing beekeeping and ancillary activities, I need to make some profit.”

Fry sells honey in $4.50 and $8.50 bottles (last year he sold 250 lbs.) as well as “nuc hives” (small colonies he creates). His wife and daughter sell lip balm and lotions made from beeswax he melts. Neighbors don’t complain because “my bees are gentle and at least 100 feet from a home or parked car,” he says, though it doesn’t hurt that he gives them freebies. “I think my honey is better than store-bought varieties” and freer of pesticides, he says. Because of the large demand for local honey, Fry says beekeepers are different enough to avoid being competitors.
Rob Lively, a government affairs professional who lives off Nellie Custis Drive, began running his custom honey label “La Ruche de Lively” in 1981. Like some 85 percent of American beekeepers, his enterprise is a hobby. His son and daughter transfer the honey into jars. “I’ve always given it away to friends, neighbors, people I work with,” Lively says. He applauds the rising interest – the White House keeps hives, and courses in beekeeping are sold out in the District (which recently legalized beekeeping).

Beehives are maintained on Arlington’s community gardens, says Kimberly Haun, urban agriculture coordinator at the Parks and Recreation Department. Home beekeeping is “unregulated and not addressed in the county code. The state code is more concerned about pesticide use and transport and sale of bees, the big-agriculture perspective,” she says.

The county Health Department deals with honey sold at farmers’ markets, and they can be strict on foodstuffs. But the Virginia code contains an exception that allows home apiaries to sell up to 250 gallons of properly labeled honey a year.