MEDINA — Everyone expects the White House to be abuzz with action, but the real beehive of activity is, well, the beehive on the south lawn.
Charlie Brandts, who keeps the honey-makers happy, regaled the Medina County Beekeepers Association with tales of life as the “first beekeeper” at the group’s meeting Monday night at Root Candles.
“How many of you who are beekeepers have to notify the Secret Service every time you light your smoker?” he joked with the audience, referring to the equipment used to calm the bees when working with them. Brandts really does have to notify the Secret Service when using the smoker, but security concerns aside, it’s all part of the life of bees living in the very public eye at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“He has the coolest bee yard in the world,” said Kim Flottum, president of the Medina County Beekeepers Association, adding
Brandts does an incredible job of educating a lot of people who might not otherwise be aware of the important ecological role bees play — and the rewards and pleasures of beekeeping.
Brandts, 53, of Silver Spring, Md., who has worked 26 of his 33 years as a federal employee in the White House residence carpenter shop, keeps 25 hives of his own.
Speaking with a soft drawl, he said he’s relatively new to beekeeping, starting four years ago when he embarked on a quest for a healthier lifestyle. That included substituting honey for sugar.
“I didn’t like the stuff I found in stores, and it was expensive. Being cheap, I thought I’d get a couple of beehives. I thought, ‘How hard could that be?’ ” he said, a wry grin on his face that drew a ripple of laughter from the crowd.
One hive led to another, and Brandts, who joined the Howard County (Maryland) Beekeepers, learned the art of harvesting, extracting and bottling honey.
He shared samples of his honey with Christada Comerford, the White House executive chef, and executive pastry chef Bill Yosses and his assistant, Susie Morrison, who in turn told the sweet story to Sam Kass, the Obamas’ personal chef. Kass talked to the gardener, who thought a few hives would be a good addition to the organic vegetable garden the first lady had in the works, and that started the ball rolling.
On March 4, 2009, Brandts received approval to keep a beehive at the White House. He decided on what he thought would become a “medium-strength” hive, and the bees moved in shortly before the garden groundbreaking. Within a week, they were putting nectar in, Brandts said, and by mid-April “created a nice honey flow and increased the population,” so much so that he had to bring in more “supers,” the box frames that make up the hive.
“I ride the Metro to work, and I had to bring them in one at a time,” he said, adding he got some strange looks from fellow commuters.
Now the honeybees contribute to first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative, pollinating the garden and producing honey — 134 pounds last year — that the White House chefs use in their recipes. The first lady also has gifted visiting dignitaries with hand-crafted crystal bottles filled with White House honey.
Since becoming a beekeeper, Brandts has contacted Flottum and other experienced beekeepers for advice, like the time the White House staff prepared for a planting ceremony. To the bees, the 20 flats of flowers represented a grand nectar buffet, and they wasted no time winging their way to the blossoms. But how to draw them away from their feast and back to the hive before the ceremony?
A quick phone call to Flottum gave Brandts the answer he needed. He corralled the bees, and the planting ceremony proceeded minus the threat of stings. At other events, like the recent Easter egg roll with 30,000 people roaming the grounds, he wasn’t taking any chances and closed the hive.
Brandts shared some of the technical aspects and challenges of beekeeping as well as the other highlights he’s enjoyed, like working the hive for an upcoming National Geographic program and a story that appeared in the New York Times, and his contributions to a program aimed at developing sustainable local queen bee breeding.
“When will the president and first lady suit up to join you?” one audience member asked. “It would be a great photo op and a great chance to promote beekeeping.”
“I don’t know,” Brandts said with a smile, adding he had the protective suits ready whenever the Obamas are.
Contact Judy A. Totts at firstname.lastname@example.org.