SMITH ISLAND -- The bell peppers in Hoss Parks' backyard garden grew bigger and tastier this summer than anyone could recall.
That signals good news for agriculture across North America. And for struggling watermen, it could mean the first new industry since crab pots were invented 50 years ago.
Mr. Parks, a crabber on this soggy archipelago nine miles west of Crisfield, has been tending a species of wildlife unknown on Smith since the Chesapeake Bay rose to isolate it from the mainland 10,000 years ago.
They are honeybees, whose pollinating habits are critical to the nation's fruit, nut and vegetable industry, worth $10 billion to $20 billion.
But honeybees never settled on Smith. Bees become disoriented when flying across so much water, and crash.
Even so-called "killer" or Africanized bees, notorious for hitchhiking on freighters, can't touch this place. The shallow waters, so productive of soft crabs, keep the closest shipping lanes nearly nine miles to the west.
Smith's splendid isolation persuaded the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1992 to approve the proposal of John Klapac, a Frederick County apiculturist, to use the island to produce a new, Yugoslavian strain of honeybee.
The "Yugo bee," or ARS Y-C-1, as the strain is officially known, shows unique resistance to mites that have the potential to wipe out current species of honeybees in the United States and Canada.
Since the early 1980s, the mites have spread from Texas and Florida across the country. They destroyed an estimated 50 percent of beekeepers' hives in Pennsylvania last year, and perhaps 40 percent in Maryland.
Pesticides are being used to control the mites, but there are concerns that the mites are becoming resistant and that the miticides pose a threat to the bees.
Raising queen bees
Mr. Klapac, who keeps colonies, or hives, of traditional U.S. honeybees and rents them to farmers for pollination, says the Yugo project was his ticket to becoming a breeder of queen bees, something he's wanted to do for years.
Queens are at the heart of bee culture. A colony, which may have 60,000 workers and drones, has but one queen. Without her, the other bees cannot long exist.
A few days after she hatches, the queen leads the hive in a mass swarming, mating with several drones. And from this conjoining, she will lay a thousand or more fertile eggs a day during warm weather for her three- to five-year life.
Producing queens for sale to beekeepers is a specialty in itself, as much art as science. Breeders select for and advertise a wide range of characteristics with which their various hybrids of queens will imbue a hive, such as docility, fast start-up (making honey) in the spring, and propensity to swarm and mate.
In 1992, Mr. Klapac joined hundreds of applicants nationwide in responding to a USDA offer. The department proposed leasing to three breeders with the best proposals the exclusive right to propagate and sell mite-resistant Yugo queens for dissemination the apiculture industry around the country.
Mr. Klapac says, "It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that [leases] would go to a couple big outfits with lots of resources and state-of-the-art breeding techniques like artificial insemination."
Indeed, two such groups, Hybri-Bee of La Belle, Fla., and Honeybee Genetics of Vacaville, Calif., were selected. Mr. Klapac figured the right island could do the job, too, maybe even better in his opinion.
"With artificial insemination you don't need the physical isolation of an island to ensure genetic purity," he says. "But it's a touchy process, and natural breeding will produce a queen with superior longevity."
With a road map and charts of the bay, he narrowed his site to a few islands, and eventually to Smith. He says the climate there, ++ because of the surrounding waters, "is closer to South Carolina than anywhere else" -- a help in minimizing winter losses of bees.
The marshy island also had enough forage such as clover, thistle, blackberries, willow, hackberries, maples and pomegranate, though he must supplement the bees' diet with sugary syrup brought over in barrels.
And the island, along with the Somerset County mainland, has what he thinks will be a ready labor supply. Mr. Klapac plans to train and hire 10 full-time bee breeders in 1994, and eventually more than 20.
Given the loss of oystering and fishing opportunities in recent years for the island's 450 or so inhabitants and the chronic, high unemployment rate in the county as a whole, he thinks Yugo bees could be a significant boost to the economy.
Mr. Parks, who crabs part time and supplements his income with odd jobs, ,says he hopes to be the first to sign up.
Less aggressive bees