Sen. Patrick J. Toomey holds out both his hands.
“You notice any difference?” the Pennsylvania Republican asks.
His left hand is swollen. The culprit: his beehive.
He harvested about three gallons of honey last weekend from the colonies he manages — all without a pair of gloves.
“One of the girls objected to my presence, evidently,” he said. “I thought that it was just a quick sting. I didn’t think she got too much venom in, but as you can see …”
Stings are an occupational hazard for the backyard beekeeper. Toomey got jabbed a total of three times last year, but recently, he counted three stings in one day.
“I think this colony is a little bit more aggressive. Last year’s colony was a little more docile,” Toomey said.
The senator installed his first colony in his backyard in April 2017. It was after his college roommate sent him a video that showed a man in Hong Kong tending hives on a rooftop.
“This was 2015, and I’m thinking, well, I’m not going to take on a project like this going into an election year. It’s just too intense — but maybe after the election year,” Toomey said.
“For the backyard beekeeper, it’s extremely labor intensive,” especially honey extraction, he added.
Not long after that, his son Patrick showed him another video of a new invention, Flow, that made the harvesting process look like “a piece of cake,” he said.
“When my son showed me that I thought, ‘Wow, that makes all the difference. Maybe I’ll give this a try,’” the senator said.
Toomey waited until after he was re-elected to install his first colony. Now he has two.
When he’s home, he checks out the hives daily and opens them up for a full inspection monthly. During the course of the year, he will treat the bees for parasites and feed them with sugar water syrup.
Last season, he ended up with seven gallons of honey from a single hive.
“The bad news is, I got four of it over the course of the summer and early fall, which all worked out great, but then the colony died in March,” he said. “It made it through the coolest part of the winter … and they didn’t starve because they left behind what turned out to be another three gallons of honey.”
Some beekeepers have reported that climate change is affecting their hives. And honeybee deaths went up last season, according to an annual survey conducted by Auburn University and the University of Maryland.
Toomey’s take on the situation? “First of all, we don’t have any idea.”
“The fact is, honey bees thrive across an enormously wide range of climates,” he said. “You have thriving honey bee colonies in Canada, in Maine, in Alaska, on mountains, in very cold areas. You have thriving honey bee colonies in equatorial regions. … Pretty much anywhere where there’s flowering plants, there are honey bees. So it’s hard for me to imagine that a change in the climate suddenly would be terribly disruptive, since they thrive in every climate I can think of where there’s flowers.”
For Toomey, the lessons of beekeeping have more to do with order and control.
“It’s amazing how intricate and complex and multistaged the whole process is. Yet there’s no one in control, there’s no one orchestrating it,” he said. “Somehow through this evolutionary process, they have instinctively learned how to do so much. It’s absolutely fascinating.”
While urban beekeeping has been picking up steam in D.C., Toomey won’t be practicing his hobby too close to his Senate office just yet. The only beehive on the Capitol grounds is at the U.S. Botanic Garden.
Bees can find the hive on the roof of the garden, just across from the House office buildings.