A Bountiful Buzz
By Elisabeth Goodridge
Meet the White House honeybee.
Numbering more than 65,000 at one point, the bees produced a bumper crop of honey this year, the first time honey has ever been made on White House grounds. The hive, located on the South Lawn, is a key part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s organic kitchen garden project.
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Basswood and cherry trees helped create a unique taste for White House honey.
That access to the National Mall is one reason. “It’s just an abundance of blooms,” Mr. Brandts said, noting the local flowers, plants and trees were ripe with bee-attracting nectar. “The Ellipse and monument grounds are just a great source of clover. It’s like having a huge pasture.”
A White House carpenter for the past 25 years, Mr. Brandts started beekeeping in the backyard of his Maryland home three years ago.
The natural honey his hives produced drew the attention of White House chefs, who introduced him to Sam Kass, the Chicago chef who followed the Obamas from their hometown to the White House. Mr. Kass wondered whether beehives could be part of the White House garden.
Doug Mills/The New York Times“I said ‘I think it would be very doable,’ ” Mr. Brandt said, recalling the conversation. “It was that simple. It just gets complicated after that.”
For one, the beehive sits in the flight path of Marine One, President Obama’s helicopter. “We don’t worry about just the lid blowing off, we worry about the hive blowing over,” Mr. Brandts said.
Mr. Brandts lent the White House bee swarms from his own backyard, setting up the new hive in late March. The bees –which travel as far as three miles from the hive– started bringing in nectar in April.
“These bees on the South Grounds are such sweet bees,” Mr. Brandts said. “I don’t know if it’s because they are down there by themselves or they are just the best bees.”
In June, Mr. Brandts collected 42 pounds of honey in the first extraction. (Since he uses a handheld smoker to placate the bees, he alerts the Secret Service beforehand.) At first, the bees produced a mild, delicately flavored honey lightly tan in color. The Mall’s cherry trees, which bloomed in early April, provided some nectar for that first batch. Clover, black locust and basswood could also be detected. As the summer progressed, the honey’s color darkened, with the fifth and final extraction revealing honey almost chestnut in color.
“We really only got two pounds of that, it’s a rarity,” Mr. Brandts said, noting that one flower on the grounds could have had an influence. “The whole fountain had red salvia planted around it, and it was always covered with bees. I suspect it was from that.”
Doug Mills/The New York TimesNow that the weather has cooled, the bees’ production has slowed, and Mr. Brandts hopes to keep them alive, however, sleepily, through the winter.
As for the abundance of honey, the White House has kept some for both the residence and for official events. During a Halloween party hosted by the White House on Saturday night, trick-or-treaters received a honey-sweetened shortbread cookie. And at Latin American concert last month, the menu included desserts made with honey.
In addition, spouses of world leaders received special jars of the honey as one of the gifts from Mrs. Obama at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh earlier this fall. Miriam’s Kitchen, a local food bank which serves meals to the homeless, has received honey along with produce from the garden.
“It doesn’t take a lot to make a difference,” said Steve Badt, kitchen operations director at Miriam’s Kitchen, where they have made fruit smoothies finished with a drizzle of White House honey. “Each blenderful gets a tablespoon or so. It’s a nice little touch, just like tea.”