Student beekeepers tour White House hive, garden

White House beekeeper Charlie Brandts

From left, Sarah Bluher ’13, Eric Penalver ’13 and Rachelle Simon listen to White House beekeeper Charlie Brandts. View more photos in the slide show below. (Photo: Lauren Zumbach ’13)

Most D.C. tourists come to the White House hoping for a glimpse of the president. But for Princeton students who visited 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. April 13, bees were the main attraction.

The BEE Team, a group of student beekeepers who look after two beehives at the West Windsor Fields, was invited on a private tour of the hives and the White House Kitchen Garden with White House beekeeper Charlie Brandts and executive pastry chef Bill Yosses.

“My favorite part was listening to Charlie speak to us as one beekeeper to another,” said Eric Penalver ’13. “He was really informative, fun to listen to, and passionate about what he does.”

BEE Team sponsor Rocky Semmes ’79 organized the trip after hearing that First Lady Michelle Obama ’85 included a beehive in the White House Kitchen Garden. “Since she’s an alum, I thought it might work and would be a great opportunity for the club,” Semmes said.

Students were particularly eager to pick Brandts’ brain after learning the White House bees produced 225 pounds of honey last year – more than four times the amount the BEE Team typically extracts from its two hives. That’s partly because the White House gardens have some bee-friendly vegetation not found near the Princeton hives, and partly because the BEE Team students, most of whom had never tried beekeeping before joining, are conservative about how often they harvest.

“Once we get more experienced, we’ll know exactly how much we can take while still leaving [the bees] enough for the winter,” Sarah Bluher ’13 explained.

Even though the art of beekeeping is much the same on campus and at the White House, looking after the presidential hives does bring a few added challenges, Penalver noted. The BEE Team members don’t have to worry about getting permission from the Secret Service when they light the smoker, a device that generates smoke to calm the bees. And they don’t need to convince the president he’s unlikely to get stung while playing basketball on the White House grounds.

“I told him the bees are more interested in nectar than politics,” Brandts told the students.

The White House also got a taste of Princeton’s honey. Students brought jars of honey and lip balm from the Princeton hives for everyone they met on the tour – and left some for Michelle Obama as well.

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