For Love and Honey
To Whitney Long, happiness is a box of bees.
It’s a sunny day and Whitney Long is paying a visit to the thousands of bees that live behind her house in Arlington Ridge. Dressed in a coverall, gloves and a netted beekeeper’s hat, she peeks into the boxes that make up their hives, pleased to see that the colonies are healthy and reproducing. Eggs resembling miniature grains of rice and pearly white larvae are visible in several of the frames.
A petite, soft-spoken woman in her 50s, Long is a one-beekeeper operation and builds her own hives. Each wooden hive holds four to eight stacked boxes (known as “supers”), depending on the season. Each box holds 10 frames of beeswax comb, where bees deposit the excess honey that will be harvested.
Long first caught the bug (ahem) years ago as a college student at the University of California, Davis. She and a friend obtained a hive upon receiving notification of a swarm from the local fire department. (A swarm occurs when a queen leaves a colony with a large group of worker bees and sets out to colonize a new hive.) Cutting a branch from the tree where the swarm had congregated, they lowered it into a box and transported the bees to a new location near their dorms. But the bees didn’t survive the winter.
It wasn’t until decades later that Long decided to give apiculture another shot on the East Coast, where she had relocated as a military spouse (her husband, Erik, is a retired U.S. Navy commander). In the nearly 300-member Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia, she found many fellow enthusiasts and mentors. “There are so many aspects to beekeeping,” she explains, “from learning about the biology of bees—literally the birds and the bees—to the toxicology of bee stings, to how to design your own label for honey.” This time her hives flourished.
Her current operation is limited to 2½ hives, which she keeps in her own backyard and the yard of an obliging friend a couple of miles up South Glebe Road. She doesn’t sell honey for a living—she has a demanding full-time job as an industrial hygienist with an environmental consulting firm in Arlington—yet she often spends up to 30 hours a week tending her charges.
And it’s a year-round commitment. During springtime, Long checks for overcrowding (which can trigger swarming), and adds the supers for honey collection. Early summer is harvest season in Arlington. In fall, she ensures that the hives are adequately prepared for the coming cold season; a colony requires 60 to 80 pounds of honey to feed itself over a Virginia winter, she explains. While the bees huddle in their hives, she spends the winter cleaning old equipment and readying the supers for the late-spring nectar flow.
A regular judge for local 4-H competitions (she also coordinates the annual honey competition at the Arlington County Fair), Long has raised two kinds of bees: three-banded Italian and Carniolan honey bees. In the winter, her hives contain only a few thousand bees, but their numbers swell to 50,000 by early summer. The queen, who can live for several years, lays about 1,000 eggs per day on average, although in the spring she can lay double that. Worker bees live about six weeks, constantly tending the queen’s eggs to replace their population.
Lush with holly trees, a vegetable garden, herbs and flowering plants, Long’s backyard is a paradise for the tiny pollinators. In 2012, she harvested 187 pounds of honey from a single hive.
“What I harvest, I use at home and as gifts to friends and family, donations to the Arlington Food Assistance Center, competitive entries in the county fair, and honey tastings for my co-workers,” she says. Occasionally she sells the stuff to colleagues at work, and at local events such as the Aurora Hills Women’s Club Holiday Boutique or the county fair.
“I don’t consider myself a honey aficionado by any means,” says Evan Fago, one of her co-workers at Eastern Research Group, “but compared to the honey from the grocery store, Whitney’s honey has a more subtle sweetness. It’s great that I can…buy homemade honey…and support her hobby.”
Long’s neighbor and friend Sue Shaw is another lucky recipient of the annual bounty, which is packaged in small, bear-shaped containers. “What is really a thrill is that it is made right here, two blocks from my house,” Shaw says.
Not surprisingly, honey is a popular ingredient in the Longs’ kitchen, finding its way into tea or warm milk, homemade granola, salad dressings and bread. They also cook with it, using it in marinades for turkey or as a substitute for corn syrup in candy and chocolate recipes.
Why all the fuss over bees? “Because my husband wouldn’t let me have a goat!” Long quips. This is partly true, although she also appreciates the effects the bees have had on her vegetable garden, which, she says, has yielded much more robust produce ever since the hives arrived.
Plump tomatoes and prolific squash notwithstanding, she finds simple satisfaction in the ritual of tending to the fastidious little creatures—arguably some of nature’s most important couriers.
“I love the smell of a healthy hive,” Long says, describing its earthy, almost musky smell as ambrosial. “There is nothing like it.”
How is honey made? Bees collect nectar in the spring and deposit it in cells within the honeycombs they have built inside the hives. They process the nectar, which is high in natural sugars, to reduce its water content to the point where it will not ferment. Bees have an innate ability to know exactly when the honey is ready—at which point they cap each of the cells with wax to protect and seal the finished honey. Long harvests the honey in summertime, once about 90 percent of the cells are capped. She removes the honeycombed frames, gently brushing the bees away, and inserts the frames, two at a time, into a stainless steel, hand-cranked extractor. Turning the handle of this contraption, she then lets centrifugal force spin the honey from the comb. The honey collects in the bottom of the extractor barrel.
Carol Stroud is a writer, librarian and book collector. She worked for many years at the National Geographic Society and has lived in Arlington for more than three decades.