Busy bees intrigue bystander

August 11, 2007|By ROB KASPER

During a recent scorching evening, Peter Norman and I slipped into his downtown Baltimore backyard to watch his bees work.

Like many residents of Baltimore, these honeybees were out on their "front porch," the lower part of their hive, where the air is cooler, Norman said.

An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 honeybees reside in the 3-foot-tall hive, a squarish structure, ringed in handsome varnished pine. There is a hierarchy to the hive, he told me. The queen and nursery bees reside on the lower floor, or "brood"; the honey and its foragers can be found in the upper levels.

I was uneasy about standing so close to a boiling bunch of bees. But Norman assured me that if I behaved -- if I did not disturb their hive or get in their flight path -- the bees would not bother me. They had better things to do, such as gathering nectar and pollen, he said.

As my initial wariness dissipated, I became intrigued. Watching bees come and go from the hive was compelling, like sitting in a hotel lobby and watching people ride glass elevators, or watching planes take off and land.

The airport comparison is apt. When I stood a few feet from the hive and looked up, I saw a series of bees taking flight, heading somewhere within a 3-mile radius of the hive. One after the other, they shot toward the sky, each following a spiral pattern. An air-traffic controller would have been proud of them.

Norman, a nurse practitioner at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in downtown Baltimore, said he keeps a hive in his backyard, not so much for the honey, as for pleasure.

"Bees are so cool," he said, ticking off a list of their attributes. Those included an intricate social organization, a great work ethic and an admirable attitude. "Bees do nothing that is not for the good of their community," he said.

Norman is one of the estimated 900 amateur beekeepers, or "hobbyists," in the state. He began caring for honeybees four years ago after taking a class at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center taught by Jerry Fischer, the state's apiarist. As a courtesy, Norman told his Bolton Hill neighbors of his plan before putting a hive in his backyard, which is enclosed by high brick walls.

While he was not certain how Baltimore's new Health Department regulations on exotic pets might affect his backyard hive, he said he and his bees have lived in harmony for years with his rowhouse neighbors.

Mites brought down his first colony. He got his current colony when it "swarmed," or bolted, from a hive that a friend had in her Roland Park backyard. Bees leave a hive, taking a queen with them, when they need more room, Norman told me.

He described the scene in his friend's backyard, where a bush was filled with bees swarming around a queen, as "a National Geographic moment." He clipped a bee-filled branch, let it fall into a box, put a lid on the box and brought the buzzing box to his backyard and put the bees in his hive.

At first the bees rejected their new home. He found them about half a block away setting up shop in some nearby bushes. Donning protective headgear known as a "beekeeper's veil," he again moved the queen and her court back to his hive. This time they stayed.

Watching the intensely energetic honeybees in Norman's backyard, it was hard to comprehend that nationally hives are in trouble, suffering from an affliction called Colony Collapse Disorder.

After reading Elizabeth Kolbert's recent article on honeybee troubles in The New Yorker magazine and talking with Fischer, I understand that the disorder is having the biggest impact on commercial honeybee hives. These "commuter bees" are trucked from state to state to help pollinate crops. The local hives seem to be in better health. But nationally there are many more "commuter bees" than locals.

Norman said his hive is doing well. It has doubled in size since the bees arrived from Roland Park in June. Yet he still keeps an eye out for parasitic mites, a nemesis of honeybees.

I watched Norman conduct a mite count in his hive. Gingerly, he pulled a white foam tray covered with bees from the lowest level, or "porch," of his hive. Using a stick, he eased the bees aside as he eyed the bottom of the tray looking for dark dots, about the size of the lead in a pencil. These, he said, would be mites. He counted very few.

He did spot a drone, a male bee. Drones are the freeloaders of the bee world, Norman said. All they do is mate with the queen. But as soon as the weather turns cold, Norman said, the queen stops laying eggs, and the drones are summarily tossed out of the hive.

During the winter, the bees keep warm by clustering, vibrating their bodies and rotating, taking turns occupying the coldest parts of the hive. They rely on their honey stores for winter fare.

Norman offered me a chance to put on the veil, open up the hive and peer inside. I declined.

I had developed a fresh appreciation of honeybees and their complex rhythms. I did not want to spoil it. The scorching weather had put me in a testy mood. I didn't want to take the risk that the roiling hive of hot honeybees might feel the same way.


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