COLUMBIA -Honeybees may be struggling worldwide, but Maryland is seeing a boom in amateur beekeepers.
Despite a worrisome decline in the bee population over the last decade, the number of people registering as beekeepers with the state continues to grow—1,872 currently, up from 1,362 four years ago—according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
This comes in spite of a years-long panic over Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other killers like mites, viruses and overuse of pesticides. Honeybees are dying off at an average of 30 percent per year, experts said.
But that isn’t slowing people like Diane Dunne, of Columbia, from signing up for beekeeping classes.
“I’ve always loved the outdoors but I’ve never had a hobby like this,” said Dunne, who, along with her husband Dennis Dunne, is planning on beginning beekeeping in the next year or two. The pair first considered backyard beekeeping after seeing a booth at a Howard County fair.
This growth in interest in beekeeping is promising, experts said.
“If we really want to change the environment to help bees, we need a cultural shift,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland. “Backyard beekeepers can be instrumental in that.”
To become a beekeeper in Maryland, a person must register both themselves and their colonies with the state. Each county has different regulations regarding things like where bees can be kept but there is no statewide regulation aside from the mandatory registration, said Jerry Fischer, the chief bee inspector for Maryland.
“The more you understand about bees the more insignificant you feel,” Dennis Dunne said. “It’s like another little world.”
More than anything, the public’s awareness spiked at the height of the CCD media coverage and spurred a number of citizens into beekeeping.
“The general public is starting to become more aware of the delicacy of the bee population in the United States,” said Delegate Kathy Afzali, R-Middletown, who spearheaded efforts to enact a honey standard in the state.
Short courses in beekeeping are offered through various beekeeping associations and college extension schools throughout the state. Most range from six to eight weeks and are scheduled for mid-February, to allow for graduates to begin keeping bees directly following the end of the class. Many cost less than $100.
Hobbyists aren’t the only people taking interest in bees and the products they produce. Maryland legislators have expressed interest as well.
Maryland passed a bill outlining honey standards in 2012. The legislation specifies what constitutes honey in the state of Maryland and ensures that any honey sold in the state meets specific standards.
Previously, honey imported into Maryland—mostly from abroad—was of questionable quality, with some importers adding high fructose corn syrup or shipping honey produced from bees fed sugar water instead of actual nectar.
“I—and my family—love honey,” said Delegate Kathy Afzali, R-Middletown. “The idea that I was feeding my children what I thought was the healthy alternative when in fact it could be high fructose corn syrup was worrisome.”
This legislation gives local honey producers a way to level the playing field, Afzali said, by giving producers the opportunity for civil action if they suspect another company is selling or importing compromised honey.
“In the state of Maryland we mean business,” Afzali said. “If you’re going to call it honey, by god it better be honey.”
Interest in these courses has skyrocketed throughout Maryland. Most are left with standing room only.
The Dunnes plan on taking the Howard County Beekeepers Association’s short course early next year and already plan to use their honey crop in homemade beer and artisanal bread. They also hope to use the wax produced by their bees for Christmas gifts.
Another pair of beginning beekeepers, Paul Yacci and Allison Kellner, also think they’ll use their honey yield as gifts and in cooking. Due to space issues, their hives will likely be kept in an outlot, they said.
Outlots are areas owned by other beekeepers that are rented out to hive owners with space issues —- either they live in an apartment or the housing association where they live does not allow bees. This allows people to keep bees who may not have been able to without the rented space.
“A lot of new folks learn about bees from the media, they learn that bees pollinate, they want to do something,” said David Maloney, president of the Frederick County Beekeeping Association. “Becoming a hobbyist is one way to do it.”
But, Maloney said, many first-time beekeepers fail to anticipate the initial cost of keeping bees or the steep learning curve that comes with caring for multiple hives. As many as a third of people enrolling in short courses stop keeping bees within three years.
“Most stick with it if they have a good mentor,” said Karen Roccasecca, director of the east region of the Apiary Inspectors of America and state apiarist for the state of Pennsylvania.
“I’ve learned so much this past year, not because of what I did right, but because of the mistakes I made,” Maloney said of his own eight hives. An antique appraiser by day, Maloney first began keeping bees as a hobby two years ago.
“Getting the bees through the winter is the mark of a real beekeeper,” said Roger Williams, president of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, who has been keeping bees on and off since 1973.
Aside from the cost of the class itself, Maloney said, a person has to consider the cost of the wood to build the hive along with any specialized beekeeping equipment. And they have to purchase the bees.
“You’re maybe looking at $300,” Maloney said. “There is an expense and ongoing little expenses as time goes on.”
But caring for hives, despite the initial cost to get the system up and running, can be both monetarily rewarding—from the honey and beeswax produced by the hive—and intellectually stimulating as well, Maloney said.
“Once you start learning and take the time to read about the honey bee, it infects you with this interest,” Maloney said.
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