In a bitterly divided town, Karen Pence produces some sweet results

Vice President's bees produce in-house

By JOANN SIERRA, CNN
WYMT via CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) - There's a buzz in the air on the grounds at the Naval Observatory.

Second lady Karen Pence installed the first beehive at the Vice President's residence in June last year and it has thrived. Washington might not be known for successful collaborations these days, but Pence can point to the sweet success of her bees -- tens of thousands of them -- as she prepared for her first honey harvest this month.

"The bees are doing great," Pence told CNN. "We are proud to report after a year that we are up to about 60,000 bees now."

When Pence installed her hive at the residence last summer, she noted that bees, along with other pollinators, are responsible for one in every three bites of food consumed in the U.S. -- from your morning coffee to summer berries in a pie -- and that their population has been declining, potentially putting agriculture and food production at risk.

"One of the reasons that we wanted to bring a bee hive to the vice president's residence was because we wanted to help our bee population and we do have colony collapse disorder," Pence said, naming one of the biggest challenges facing bees.

Colony collapse disorder is an eerie phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees simply disappear without a trace, leaving behind honey, their queen and a few attendants. Scientists still aren't sure what causes it, but are focused on a few factors, including pesticides and mites.

"It was important for us to do what we could," Pence said. Some beekeepers lost as many as 90% of their hives to the scourge in 2006 and 2007, when it first hit. While colony collapse losses have declined, it's still a major concern.

Pence has been a champion of bees and pollinators for a while, keeping a hive at the governor's residence in Indiana before her husband became Vice President.

CNN was granted exclusive access to the first honey harvest at the vice president's residence. Pence noted how much her hive has grown since she established it.

"Our hive is taller than it was when you guys were here a year ago," she said, as she and a local beekeeper prepared to harvest the honey.

She noted that August 18 is National Honey Bee Day, a day started to raise awareness of bees and beekeeping.

Pence told CNN that this was the first time she would see the whole honey harvest process.

The beekeeper, dressed in white protective gear, inspected the hive, removing only a couple of wooden rectangular frames filled with honeycomb and collecting them in a separate box. The frames were transported to the Vice President's catering kitchen, where a thin layer of wax covering the honey was removed and the frames were placed in a hand-cranked centrifuge.

After some vigorous spinning, amber honey streamed down the sides of the centrifuge to a spout where it could be funneled into containers.

"It's a great gift to give people who come to the residence," Pence said. Once her honey harvest was done, Pence planned to pour the golden liquid into tiny 2 ounce bear bottles with a label that says "Vice President's Bees." They'll be given to visitors.

Pence said she only pulls extra honey that the bees won't need for their own sustenance and she does so only after a hive is well established. One of her main goals is to keep her hive healthy and its queen happy.

"We want her to be producing as many eggs as she can before the winter," Pence said.

The second lady extolled the health benefits of honey, calling it "a healthy thing," and adding that it can help protect against allergies if you consume local honey. Another benefit, she adds, is that it doesn't spoil.

The success of Pence's beehive is striking, given losses in the greater Washington area. According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, that state lost nearly 60% of its bee population over the 2017-2018 winter season. It was the highest rate of losses since 2000, when Virginia began monitoring the health of its bees.

For those who aren't inclined or able to have their own beehive, Pence suggests ways to support bees, such as planting a pollinator garden or finding a place in your garden for a birdbath type bowl with little rocks in it, so that the bees can get a drink.

Vice President Mike Pence "loves the honey," Pence said. "He likes the bees, too."

"For me," Pence waxes, "it's been a great thing to be able to do. I'm not an expert on it, but it is fascinating to watch the bees at work."

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