A hobby that's all the buzz

Bees: The Howard County Beekeepers Association hopes to build a colony of new beekeepers by offering a five-week course, which is to begin Tuesday.

March 09, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

While snow and ice slowed Marylanders this winter, honeybees were hard at work inside their hives, keeping the queens warm so that they can give birth to a new group of worker bees.

Helping bees survive has become an increasingly important social and economic issue in Maryland and elsewhere across the Northeast because pests have wiped out most of the wild bee population. The majority of the state's bees are fed, tended and kept in hives by hobbyists.

There are not enough bees, say experts who are eager to recruit new beekeepers to join the activity, which is vital to the pollination of wild plants, crops and flowers.

"It is very essential that bees are kept by whoever can keep them," said Allen Hayes, a member of the Howard County Beekeepers Association.

The association hopes to get more people started in the hobby with a five-week beginning-beekeeping course, beginning Tuesday. Similar classes are being offered in Carroll, Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties this spring.

Avid beekeepers would like to attract more newcomers like the Walsh family of West Friendship, who started their first bee colonies last spring. The Walshes are eagerly awaiting the warm weather so that they can check on their insect charges -- as many as 95,000 of them at the height of the season.

"It is a great family project we can work on together," said Gerry Walsh, an accountant with Stegman & Company in Baltimore.

When he, wife Doris, son Ben, 13, and daughter Hillary, 11, go out behind their house to inspect the hives, "we get so interested, time flies," he said.

Some benefits of keeping bees are apparent, such as the $125 million worth of honey that bees produce annually in the United States, as well as beeswax and other products.

But experts say the most important activity of honeybees is pollination.

"Without the honeybee, there would not be enough food to support life as we know it," said Jerry Fischer, a bee inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Honeybees pollinate more than 100 agricultural crops as they fly from one flower to another, seeking the nectar that is their food supply, according to the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium.

They help plants produce about a third of the food eaten in the United States, including apples, almonds, berries, peaches, melons, pumpkins, cucumbers and many others.

The industrious insects, imported from Europe 400 years ago, also pollinate flowers and berries that feed birds and wildlife.

Unfortunately, there are few wild honeybees left, giving beekeepers a key role in ensuring pollination continues.

"About 12 years ago, there was an onset of two parasitic mites ... that are playing havoc with our honeybees," Fischer said.

Tracheal mites, which are microscopic and infest the bee's breathing tubes, and varroa mites, which feed on the blood of adult and developing bees, are thought to have wiped out 80 percent of the wild honeybees in the Northeast since 1990, according to a report from the Penn State University Department of Horticulture.

Declining hobby

Broadly, beekeeping has declined across the United States over the past several decades, as mites and other pests have made it more difficult to keep bees, according to Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation in Jesup, Ga.

"Hobby beekeepers have become more important to pollination," Fore said, because of the growth of urban and suburban areas that are not suited for large-scale operations with hundreds of beehives.

He estimated 125,000 hobbyists, who each have fewer than 25 colonies, are operating in the United States.

Amateurs with just one or two hives make up more than 60 percent of Maryland beekeepers, Fischer said, although some people have larger operations and rent their hives to farmers to pollinate crops.

Howard County has 37 registered beekeepers with a total of 186 colonies, he said.

Potential beekeepers do not need a lot of land, Hayes said, and can put hives in small yards, even in urban areas.

He said, "Honeybees are not dangerous and should not be confused with wasps and yellow jackets or hornets."

Because honeybees, unlike other stinging insects, die after one sting, they only do so to defend their hive or if they are injured.

Pollination in mind

Doris Walsh had pollination in mind when she started discussing beekeeping with her family a year ago.

A pressed-flower artist and gardener who took a beekeeping class while studying horticulture at the University of Maryland, she was hoping her berries, vegetables and flowers would benefit from a local population of honeybees.

While doing research, she saw a map of county beekeepers indicating a big hole in her area where no bees were kept. So, the family was motivated to try raising bees themselves.

Ben Walsh enthusiastically took to the project, building the flat, rectangular frames on which the bees build their homes, and the outer boxes that hold several frames side by side.

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