WASHINGTON – When she pledged to take over her grandfather-in-law’s hobby last spring, Kameha Bell, 31, of Silver Spring, was a little leery — stings came with the job.
Her husband’s grandfather was a beekeeper, something she knew little about. But in an effort to boost bee populations, Maryland has offered a course in the subject for 21 years. She signed up. By the end of the summer, Bell was devoted to her backyard beekeeping hobby and enjoyed 50 pounds of fresh honey this season.
Like Bell, Maryland residents can learn the honeyed habits of the hive at beekeeping courses throughout the state this spring.
Beekeepers are in demand as parasitic mites wreak havoc on the wild Maryland bee population, impeding the pollination of vital crops, said David Bernard, president of the Montgomery County Beekeeper’s Association.
Decreased pollination causes an estimated Maryland crop value loss of $20 million per year, said Jerry Fischer of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
An increase in hobbyist beekeepers would raise the overall bee population and alleviate the pollination crisis, officials said. Local courses teach hobbyists how to prevent pests and disease among colonies in their backyard hives. The rest is up to nature, Bernard said.
“We steer and manage the colony,” he said. “The bees are gonna do what the bees are gonna do.”
The MCBA is offering a five-class beekeeping course starting Feb. 28 at the Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton. The $40 course will cover beekeeping basics such as the habits of each hive member and techniques to prevent disease and parasites. Similar courses in other Maryland counties are listed on the Maryland State Beekeeper Association’s Web site.
People of all backgrounds, from 4-H kids to adult physicians and gardeners, come to the classes, Fischer said. Many mathematicians, scientists and other well-educated folks appreciate the behavior and mechanics of bees inside the hive, Johnson said.
“It literally can be anyone,” said David Morris, the former president of the Bowie Upper Marlboro Beekeepers’ Association who’s taught even a scientist from Goddard Space Flight Center the art of beekeeping.
The average age of Maryland beekeepers is 50, Johnson estimated. She hopes a younger generation takes up the hobby because many beekeepers will soon be too old to manage bulky hive crates.
In Bell’s case, her husband’s grandfather was moving to a condominium and couldn’t care for the bees.
The first three classes of the Montgomery County course, which Bell described as “wonderful,” explained the anatomy and day-to-day habits of bees and the pathogens that threaten them. The last two classes were field days studying real hives, she said.
State officials hope more residents will be open to creating their own “apiary,” the place where tended bees live. Maryland is losing roughly one half of its managed bee colonies each year, Fischer said.
Fewer bees mean fewer pollinators of food sources such as apples, watermelons, pumpkins and cucumbers on the Eastern Shore, Bernard said. Two invading mites, one that sucks bees’ blood and one that blocks bees’ tracheas, arrived in the 1980s and are responsible for the bee decline.
“They’re the things that monster movies are made of,” said Carol Johnson, president of the MSBA.
Several products are available to stem the mite problem, Fischer said. Hobbyists apply these chemicals to their hives to kill off the mites, but not until after honey has been extracted. The honey is therefore chemical-free, officials said.
To get started, Bernard and Johnson recommend potential hobbyists call their local beekeeping association to enroll in a spring course. Next, beginners need to purchase a netted veil, gloves, a smoker, a hive tool and a box of bees from a reputable local or national source — all for about $150, Johnson said.
“The post office calls you at 6 a.m. in the morning and says, ‘Your bees are here. Please come get them,'” she said.
Those unfamiliar with regular beekeeping have one major fear — getting stung. Bell said she has only been stung about five times, while Bernard said he’s stung almost every time he tends the hives. The body adapts to frequent bee stings, Bernard said, so he does not experience much swelling or redness. Overall, stings are tolerable and come with the territory, they said.
“It’s not any worse than a pin prick or a thorn on a rose bush,” she said. “I know it will happen.”
Beekeeping can be calming, Johnson said. Beekeeping gives people solitude and wakens the senses, she said, recalling a hive she kept at a Smithville orchard.
“I would open the hives and smell warm honey and wax,” she said. “It was so nice and peaceful.”
Bell now keeps her own bees in her backyard near busy Colesville Road and the Beltway.
At first, Bell worried that her neighbors would raise an eyebrow to the beehives next door, but they’ve been open and welcoming to her hobby, she said.
Bell tended the bees through the summer while pregnant. She can’t wait until the day she can show her daughter, now 4 months old, how bees interact.
“My friends think it’s super-neat we have a hive in the city.” -30- CNS-1-20-06