Honey of a hobby draws enthusiastic students Beekeeping: Novices take Carroll County class for varied reasons, but all praise their avocation as a source of more than sweetness,

May 10, 1998|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Larry Straka's passion for an ancient recipe led him to put a bee in his mouth recently.

"My blood pressure went up a few points, but the bee just vibrated its wings on my tongue. It didn't sting me," Straka said.

He was following the example of Steve McDaniel, who demonstrated the docile nature of honeybees during the Carroll County Beekeepers Association's annual class for novices near Westminster.

"You really have to force them to sting," said Peck Bond, the association's president.

Straka was one of 51 people who took the four-session class on the grounds of the Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center this year. He wanted his own source of honey for making mead, a honey wine with origins that predate written history. It is believed by some to be the first fermented beverage.

"You've never tasted anything so good. It's phenomenal," said Straka. "And the fresher the honey, the better."

When Straka moved with his family last year from Washington state to a house on 3 acres in Westminster, he decided he finally had room to raise bees.

He joins an enthusiastic group of Carroll County residents who think beekeeping is the sweetest of pastimes.

"It's a great way to get in touch with nature," said McDaniel. "You bring it into your own back yard."

Seventy-seven of Maryland's 919 registered beekeepers live in Carroll County.

The state requires beekeepers -- even those with just one hive -- to register so state inspectors can periodically check the bees for disease. Bee diseases are not dangerous to people but can spread to other bee colonies and kill thousands of insects.

The state employs seven bee inspectors who try to inspect every bee colony at least once every two years.

"Beekeeping in Maryland is strictly a hobby," said Jerry Fischer, the bee inspector for this area. State records show that 82 percent of registered Maryland beekeepers maintain no more than two bee colonies.

It can, however, be a profitable hobby.

For about $200 in equipment that can last 20 years, beekeepers can rent their bees to farmers for pollination or they can concentrate on producing honey and beeswax for sale. An average honeybee colony should produce 65 to 75 pounds of honey a year.

"Beekeeping is one of the most profitable hobbies you can get involved in," said Fischer, a retired Baltimore firefighter who maintains 220 colonies of bees at his Rosedale home.

He said the hobby will pay for itself many times over unless the beekeeper mismanages the colonies.

After the initial investment, upkeep costs about $25 a year per colony. That is primarily for medications.

"We got into it because we were using 10 to 15 pounds of honey a year, and we were looking for a good family activity," said Bob Gierhart, a member of the Carroll County Beekeepers Association whose wife, Carol, and daughters Meghan, 13, and Ashley, 10, are enthusiastic participants.

"At first, I didn't really like the bees," said Ashley. "But it's actually pretty cool."

The beekeepers association is one of eight active clubs in Maryland.

The class that Straka took last month is one of its biggest events every year.

"This group is absolutely fantastic," said association member Charlotte Bond, as the would-be apiarists -- most of them not wearing protective gear -- crowded around the club's beehives.

"This is better than watching the Discovery Channel," said Winfield resident Chris Goldsmith. She gardens and makes wine, so beekeeping seemed the next logical step for her.

David Dressler drove from Gaithersburg to take the class. He wants his property zoned out of a subdivision and hopes raising bees will help him get the lot classified as agricultural.

"The bees are not really the driving force, and the beekeepers are not the driving force. It's the truest form of a partnership. You're not taking anything they need. You're just taking the surplus," he said.

Straka got an unexpected bonus for his $25 registration fee.

As he was leaving for home, he spotted a wild swarm and captured it with McDaniel's help. As Straka contemplated his first bee colony -- and the mead that will follow -- he was happy.

"Today," Straka said, "was an awesome experience."

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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