WASHINGTON — On an evening in late March, Jan Day is standing outside her red brick rowhouse in Capitol Hill holding a white helmet fastened with black netting. Day’s 8-year-old airedale terrier, Echo, barks as she strolls past the garden, toward the back of her house.
Neighbors driving by in a white car wave and yell, “Jan and her bees!”
Day beams with pride.
“We used to be known on our block as Echo’s mom and dad, but now I’m also the bee lady,” she says.
By day, Jan Day is the director of client success for Starfish Retention Solutions by Hobsons, an educational technology company. But it’s her after-hours hobby that’s earned her the nickname, and plenty of new friends in her neighborhood.
“People are moving in all the time,” Day said. “It’s amazing how, as soon as someone hears, ‘Oh have you met the bee lady on our block?’ suddenly people are just like ‘Oh I’ve got questions for her.’”
Day’s wooden front door opens up to reveal a flight of hardwood steps that creak as she climbs upstairs to her porch, which is attached to her bedroom. A blue patterned quilt lays neatly on the bed. Outside, nearly 100,000 bees await.
Day throws on a white puffy jacket and zips the hood with a black screen around her face and neck before stepping out onto the porch.
A rusted container billows smoke as Day squeezes the accordion-like handle eight times. The smoke inhibits the communication pheromones that bees use to alert the hive of danger. Then she opens the hives for the first time this spring.
Day slowly pulls out a wooden frame. Bees crawl over the cells with golden honey inside.
When she first started beekeeping, Day wondered if the honey would have “diesel overtones” from the urban environment. She was surprised to find it tastes wonderful.
“Because of the mix of the variety of flowering plants—from tulip poplar to basswood or linden to japanese scholar trees—the quality and quantity of nectar in the city is amazing,” she says.
A few years ago, a longtime Washingtonian beekeeper explained to DCist:
“The foraging material in urban context seems to be a lot more plentiful and diverse than it is in the rural areas. In the District specifically, we have a very green canopy that includes a lot of trees, on the streets and in parks. Trees are great for bees. As the season wanes, a lot of non-native species are here that extend the nectar flow—the nectar availability season. Plus there’s a lack of competition in the urban environment. We don’t have a lot of other competing pollinators, so it makes for a smorgasbord for the bees.”
Beekeeping in the District wasn’t always so straightforward.
While the practice was technically legal, the law was ambiguous enough that many people kept their hives in secret. That changed in 2012, when an omnibus bill more widely legalized the practice.
The legislation established standards for keeping bees and required beekeepers to register their hives with the city’s Department of Energy and Environment. Since 2015, there have been 443 colonies registered with the city, and 104 people are currently keeping bees in the city, according to the department’s records.
Day and her husband, Charles, first attended a beekeepers’ group meeting on the recommendation of a friend, Del Voss, about a year before the law passed. In 2012, the group officially became known as the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance.
The organization now has almost 250 members that gather monthly to share advice about maintaining their hives and listen to experts talk.
Toni Burnham, the president of the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance, says she wants the public to see beekeeping as normal part of the community, rather than as an eccentric hobby.
“Beekeepers should be a little bit more boring than model railroad people and a little bit less boring than the composters,” Burnham said. “We should just be another one of those groups, a normal part of the city’s DNA.”
That seems to be happening. Day conducted a survey last year to figure out just how much honey is being collected. She found that local beekeepers had harvested about 6,190 pounds of honey—roughly the weight of a Ford Explorer.
Even Second Lady Karen Pence had hives installed at the Naval Observatory in 2017. The Obamas also kept bees at the White House for many years.
With her own hives thriving, Day started her own honey and candle making company, Second Story Honey, in 2017. She sells tea lights, honey jars, owl-shaped candles, and other products online. On nice days, she’ll bring out a card table and sell her products outside her house—just feet from the hives.
Seven years after becoming a beekeeper, Day has been instrumental in mentoring and encouraging other people to take up the hobby.
One of them is her co-worker, Amy Reitz, who enlisted Day’s help at a holiday party in convincing her wife to let her buy some bees.
Now she’s going into her third year of beekeeping. Day has been a support system through tough times, like when Reitz lost her hive.
“Jan was really helpful in being able to say, like, ‘everybody loses their bees,’ ‘I’ve lost bees,’ right? And it’s a learning process,” Reitz said. “I think talking through her kind of really helped me regain the confidence.”
But Day says one of the reasons she loves the hobby is because there’s still so much to learn.
“I find beekeeping ever fascinating because scientists are learning something almost every week about bee behavior, whether its a social aspect of their lives, biological aspects of their lives, an economic impact that they have,” she says. “There’s so much that we still haven’t learned about how this superorganism works and behaves, and I just love that.”
Day also serves on the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance Swarm Squad, which is on call in the spring when swarms of honey bees search for a new home. The trick is to capture them in a box that includes the queen.
On Sunday afternoon last year, she and Voss were called to Dupont Circle Day put a netted veil over her short brown hair and climbed into a white baggy suit that resembled something out of a “Ghostbusters” movie. She climbed 30 feet up a tree and retrieved a swarm of bees that had entranced the neighborhood.
Dozens of people gathered around Day and Voss as they put the honey bees into a copier paper box and shut the lid. People stuck around to chat with the pair about beekeeping and the significance of the swarm as the honey bees form a new colony.
Day describes it as “just a magical moment combination of saving the bees and being able to talk to all of these people who had lots of questions.”