A male drone bee at right has a greater body mass than the worker… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
As Jason Hough steers his Chevy Silverado along the curving country roads of western Howard County, he makes a habit of stopping and slowly backing up his truck to trade friendly gibes with fellow farmers he's caught sight of in his rearview mirror.
One neighbor, after confiding that his alfalfa isn't drying all that well in the recent humidity, promises he won't snitch to Hough's wife about his female passenger. Another wants to know why a reporter riding shotgun doesn't have anything better to do than write about honeybees.
Shifting back into drive once again, Hough turns onto a crude dirt road near a newly installed cellphone tower on the northeastern edge of the 285-acre Larriland Farm in Woodbine, and parks in the knee-high weeds to check on his beehives.
"I've been going through a major expansion this year," says Hough, who explains he has nearly doubled the total number of hives he maintains for the popular pick-your-own farm and several other local operations. He's gone from 80 to 160 hives, and now has more than 2 millionbees at Larriland alone.
For five years he's been selling his honey wholesale to Lynn Moore, one of three siblings who own and operate Larriland. But it flies off the shelf within days of delivery, so Moore's been asking Hough to increase production from the 2,000 to 3,000 pounds he's been harvesting from her hives each season, which ends Oct. 31.
He has complied with her request this spring, estimating his enlarged apiaries — or yards, as they're popularly called — will produce as much as 8,000 pounds of honey this year and that Larriland will get between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds to sell. Next year, Hough has set his sights on 13,000 pounds.
But Moore has another motive for employing a beekeeper.
Hough's bees are performing a critical step in the food production process, she says. While peaches are self-pollinating, and tomatoes, green beans and barley don't need bees' help, crops that rely on the winged insects for pollination include apples, cherries, berries, cucumbers, eggplant and pumpkins.
Moore points out that there are other native pollinators, such as bumblebees, wasps and butterflies, and that Larriland has set aside 50 acres of woods to accommodate them. But there aren't enough of those species of insects to get the job done, she says.
"Without these three yards and the 800,000 bees they each contain, the total yield from these crops would drop significantly, as much as 25 percent," Hough estimates. "They may get the same number of apples, for instance, but they'd be smaller and would fill fewer bushel baskets by volume."
The beehives that hobbyists tend also play an essential role, Moore and Hough both point out, especially as many farmers confront higher incidences of mite infestation and a new phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, in which bees die for unknown reasons.
Hough attended the Howard County Council hearings last fall when zoning rules for beekeeping were under discussion. The meetings ended in February as the county adopted regulations that said bees are no longer considered farm animals, which meant that hives need not be set back from neighboring properties by 200 feet, among other specifications.
"I've been in 4-H my entire life and I wanted to show my support for the right to have an agricultural project like beehives on your property," he said. "That's the way in to agriculture for most young people, and I place an extremely high value on such educational outlets."
Aside from defending beekeepers' rights, it's a simple numbers game, he explained.
"The more bees that are around, the more help farmers get with food production," he said. "The bees that hobbyists keep make a real difference to our local crops. And the number of beekeepers has been dramatically increasing over the past 10 years, which is a very good thing."
In Howard County, there are 83 registered beekeepers in 95 locations, and they tend to 235 colonies of honeybees, according to figures collected by the agricultural marketing division of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
While Hough has kept bees for 21 of his 35 years, beekeeping is only one of his many jobs. He works full time in information technology for Marriott International, where he's on call 24/7. He also works on the family's 64-acre Woodcamp Farm, a Mount Airy livestock operation known primarily for its meat products.
Jason and his wife, Lindsay, a first-grade teacher at Lisbon Elementary, live in the original, renovated farmhouse on the farm with their children, Andrew, 7, and Regan, 4. His parents, Dale and Jan Hough, and two brothers, Sean and Josh, also work on the farm and live in homes on the Hardy Road property.