A new type of visitor came to the National Mall this year, flitting past monuments and museums in favor of trees, flowers and plants. But this wasn’t just some horticultural tour; no, this was work. Each day they were abuzz, gathering and pollinating before returning home to modest quarters with tremendous security near Lafayette Park.
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 LadyMichelle Obama’s organic kitchen garden project.
Basswood and cherry trees helped create a unique taste for White House honey.
The total haul was 134 pounds of honey, or roughly 11 gallons. Charlie Brandts, the White House beekeeper, couldn’t be more pleased. “I figured they would make 30 or so pounds of honey,” he said. “They surprised me.”
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 TimesMr. Brandts secured the hive with straps one afternoon this summer.
“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 TimesTo extract the honey, Mr. Brandts first had to carve off the beeswax cover.
Now that the weather has cooled, the bees’ production has slowed, and Mr. Brandts hopes to keep them alive, however, sleepily, through the winter.
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.”
Doug Mills/The New York TimesBottling, the final step of honeymaking