WASHINGTON – As winter approaches, Maryland’s four large-scale beekeepers are making sure their hives have plenty of honey, corn syrup or sugar water to get them through the cold months.
But Maryland State Apiary Inspector Jerry Fischer worries less about the bees and more about the beekeepers who are going to see the hives through winters to come.
Farmers rely on those beekeepers to deliver the honeybees that are needed to pollinate crops during the growing season. But most of the large-scale beekeepers in Maryland are in their mid-60s — the youngest is 56 years old.
“They’re getting to the point where, ‘I’ve been there, done that,'” said Fischer, noting that all are nearing retirement age, if not past it.
If those operations fold, Fischer said farmers would have to rely on hobbyist beekeepers or bees trucked in from other states. But hobbyists — there are about 1,300 in Maryland — do not usually bring their bees to farmers, who just have to hope that the hobbyists’ bees find their crops.
If not pollinated by the honeybee, certain crops can end up deformed: Improper pollination causes cucumbers to grow in a ‘C’ shape and can make strawberries and pumpkins lopsided.
Dennis Reid, a Rhodesdale farmer, said that if his beekeeper retires, it will have “great economic impact.”
“We raise 300 acres of watermelons, and that’s our biggest money crop,” Reid said. “You got to have bees to pollinate watermelons.”
Although his beekeeper has not mentioned retirement, Reid said he is aware of the man’s age and has started looking into other options, such as hiring migratory beekeepers that travel from Florida to Maine so their bees can pollinate crops along the way.
“That’s a long way to bring bees,” Reid said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
Already some farmers use bees brought in from other states, but that can spread disease, said Dean Burroughs, state bee inspector on the Eastern Shore.
Certain types of mites can be devastating for bees, and caused most of the wild honeybee population in Maryland to die off in the 1990s. That population is coming back, but nowhere near the level farmers require.
“We try to inspect bees,” Burroughs said. But if there is a sudden influx of out-of-state hives, “it’ll be tough to keep up with that.”
Smithsburg beekeeper Ora Hays, 56, said his son had expressed an interest in taking over the operation. But beekeepers say it is usually hard to attract people to a business is physically demanding and offers few frills.
Beekeepers use hives and smokers that have not changed much since Mark Twain’s days, said Oliver Collins, who manages about 1,500 hives in Vienna. Beekeepers regularly lift 100-pound hives and often work strange hours because bees only return to the hives after dark.
“Almost every beekeeper I know has a bad back,” said Warren Seaver, 65, a Dover, Del., resident who keeps some of his bees in Maryland. “It’s a young man’s game, yet older people are in it.”
Now, Fischer, Burroughs and others are trying to get more young people excited about the honeybee. Beginning beekeeping classes are offered through local beekeeping associations, and Fischer tries to get people abuzz with honey shows at fairs and festivals.
Collins said it is important to start young just because of how physically demanding beekeeping can be.
“If you waited until you were 60 years old to start this it might kill you,” he said.
But at 65, Collins knows he is going to have to leave the industry soon.
“I’d like to stay in it another five years, but I’m not sure,” he said. “That’s health-dependent.”
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