By Nancy Taylor Robson
Photos by USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab
“Beware any enterprise that requires new clothes,” warned Henry David Thoreau. I think he meant getting married or becoming a stockbroker or undertaker, but it could also apply to beekeeping.
“There’s an outlay to start,” says Kim Mehalick, President of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association. “It will run you about $1,000 for two hives, and after the second year, you have the hope of honey.”
The outlay will include new clothes—veil, gauntlets, bee jacket or full bee suit—as well as the cost of hive boxes, frames, tools, and two packages of bees that you pour-bop-sweep into your new hives. (It’s worth seeing; there are videos.)
Many people who haven’t actually kept bees think of it as a benign, set-it-and-forget-it enterprise. It’s not. It’s animal husbandry and, just like farming, exempt from some stay-at-home rules during the COVID-19 quarantine. As with virtually every other land animal, honeybees need food, water, protection from weather extremes, and periodic health checks.
“Keeper” is an apt term since it’s also sometimes challenging to actually keep them in your hives. When the bees get too crowded—which can happen if the keeper doesn’t add expansion space in spring when they need it—they’ll swarm; i.e., a large portion of the old colony, led by the old queen, will boil out of the hive in preparation for starting a new colony. This is a wonderful show to watch; a bee tornado whirls around overhead, loosely following the queen. Once she lands, all the other bees who have come with her buzz around in diminishing circles until the whole mob is bunched around her on a branch (or junction box, propane tank lid, whatever) in a Big Ball O’ Bees.
There are 430-plus species of native bees in Maryland, and approximately 4,000 native to North America. Honeybees (Apis cerana or Apis mellifera, depending whose expertise you’re relying on) aren’t among them. But they have long been highly productive naturalized citizens.
“Honeybees have been here for four centuries,” says Mehalick. “Settlers brought them from Europe.”
“Our connection to honeybees is ancient,” says Anthony Nearman, PhD candidate in bee physiology and molecular biology at vanEngelsdorp Bee Lab, University of Maryland. “There are cave paintings of honeybees in Egypt.”
While their wax and honey (and mead) are treasured, from the beginning it’s been their efficient pollinating for which honeybees are most valued.
Virtually all bees pollinate, but not all are as assiduous about it as honeybees, which are responsible for pollinating more than 70 percent of our food crops: apples, almonds, peaches, plums, squash, melons, and much, much more. Over 100 commercial food crops depend on bees for pollination, and it’s estimated that every fourth bite of food we take is thanks to the work of honeybees.
“Honeybees and the need for managed hives for crop pollination is huge,” notes Mehalick.
“They offer billions of dollars in pollination services,” agrees Nearman.
One of the reasons honeybees are such great pollinators is that they tend to return to the same blossom more than once, which is crucial; effective pollination is rarely just a one-and-done deal.
“It takes eight visits to an individual bloom to produce a cucumber, for example,” Mehalick says. “The year before we got our bees, we got no cucumbers. But after we got them, I made so many pickles the kids were pleading with me not to do anymore.”
The majority of honeybees used in agricultural pollination are commercially raised and trucked around the country to coincide with regional bloom times. But there has been a significant rise in honeybee hobbyists; for instance, there are over 500 registered hives in Washington, D.C. alone. The Maryland State Beekeepers Association now boasts over 800 members, and the Virginia State Beekeepers Association has over 900. Additionally, the face of beekeeping is changing.
“I started nine years ago, and the room was filled with men,” says Mehalick, “but now I’m seeing more and more women.”
“I have five beekeepers near me and three of them are women,” agrees Ian Henry, treasurer of the Virginia State Beekeepers Association (VSBA).
What has helped women (and anyone who wants to save their back) is the option for smaller, lighter equipment. Honey is denser than water. A ‘deep’ box full of honey weighs about 80 pounds, and a ‘medium’ —which is what most women and many men use—weighs about 50 pounds.
Mary Laura Fitzgerald, president of Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore Beekeeping Association (UESBA), who uses medium boxes, got into beekeeping almost by accident. After moving to the Eastern Shore from College Park, MD, she went to a talk on pollinator plants and discovered it was filled with beekeepers. Five years later, Fitzgerald has thirteen hives spread around Kent County, including seven at Sassafras Environmental Education Center’s huge vegetable garden at Turner’s Creek.
“It mushroomed,” she admits, in part because that’s what it does (there’s an addiction factor to beekeeping) and in part because of the kind of year it has been. “This year was crazy for swarms,” she says.
Before swarming, the bees who are leaving gorge on honey to prepare for what they assume will be a challenging journey to find optimal new digs. Once the swarm has formed into a big ball o’ bees, scouts—older, forager bees, who have come up through hive ranks and experienced all the jobs both inside and outside the hive, and as a result are familiar with the full range of colony needs—go out in different directions to search. The prospective new home must be large enough for brood and honey stores so the colony can survive the winter, but small enough that the bees can heat it efficiently. The first scouts come back and do a waggle dance on the surface of the swarm to let other scouts know where and how far away their favored site is. (Again—video!) Using that information, more scouts go check those sites out personally, then come back to report and vote, encouraging other bee scouts to do the same. Over the course of about three days, the site for the new colony is chosen by a quorum of the scouts in a wonderfully democratic process.
“These scouts have gone out. They’ve found various options. They’ve put the options on the table, and then they winnow out all the options except for one,” says Cornell University biologist Thomas Seeley, PhD, author of Honeybee Democracy (Princeton University Press). “It still amazes me that insects can conduct such a well-organized discussion and come to an agreement. What’s even more remarkable is [that] the consensus site is the best site. They’re not just building an agreement, but they’re building a good choice.”
Once the agreement is reached, the swarm takes off in a low-flying wave and travels to their new home.
Beekeepers could simply leave swarms alone to choose a hollow tree or church steeple on their own. But many prefer to capture them and set them up, either in a new hive for themselves or as a gift to a fellow beekeeper who needs or wants one and is not yet overwhelmed with the number of hives already under their care.
Capturing a swarm is a kind of gathering operation. Despite the fact that the bees can sting, because they filled up on honey pre-swarming, they’re not hangry and tend to be fairly quiescent—though you probably don’t want to go up and capture them without first donning your new clothes. (I’ve seen it done. Some stings ensued.)
If the swarm is accessible, the keeper will have a prepared wooden swarm box in tow. The swarm box can be as simple as a lidded cardboard box with a screened opening in top; it just needs to be light and easily transportable. The keeper then approaches the swarm and gently sweeps them off a branch and into the box with a soft brush, hoping the queen is among them. Or the keeper may just kind of ‘bop’ the laden branch against the box to drop the ball o’ bees into it. Most of them fall in a wad. Given a little time, if the queen is in the box, the rest will follow. The keeper will then close the lid completely, take the swarm to the new hive and install the bees. (Pour, gently bop, sweep—videos abound.)
My husband, Gary, who began keeping bees when he retired, has had several swarms from his hives this year. The most recent one balled up at the top of a 25-foot cedar tree. They were his bees and he was reluctant to let them go, but gathering was not an option. Instead, he decided to try to persuade them to choose the empty hive box he set up on the lawn below.
He sprayed all of the frames in the box with sugar water laced with lemongrass oil (aka, margaritas for bees), then waited. In a few minutes, some of the scouts descended to check it out, while a small cloud of others zoomed off across the field and disappeared. He thought he’d lost them. But as he stood there by the hive box, the queen—distinguished both by her large size and by the fact that she had been marked previously with a little yellow dot on her thorax—came down, landed on Gary’s shirt sleeve and hung there. Carefully, he took out his queen clip (a little cage like a hair clip), gently enclosed her in it and set it at the entrance to the new hive. Margaritaville plus queen pheromones = irresistible. Bees came down from the treetop and went in. Over the course of the afternoon, the other bees came back across the field.
That evening, Gary opened the clip and in went the queen. By the following morning, though a mass of the bees had spent the night clumped (bearded) around the outside of the hive box, thousands had already set up shop inside. (He had suited up, took off the lid and checked to be sure). The rest went in the following evening. Three days later, he and his bee buddy, Dick Crane, moved the new hive to a friend’s farm. The pair now have thirteen hives they maintain around the county, and they also mentor several other beekeepers in what has turned into a semi-full-time job. As Fitzgerald observed, it mushrooms.
Mehalick insists that keeping bees is easy. (Then again, she works at NASA, so everything may seem easy by comparison.) Having watched the work up-close-and-personal, I disagree.
Fascinating? Utterly. “I believe I learn something every time I go into a hive,” says Bruce Hamon, first VP of the VSBA.
Easy? Not so much. While colony collapse disorder is less an issue now than when it was first brought to the world’s attention in 2007, there are still a number of ongoing potential threats to a colony: varroa mites, hive beetles, poor nutrition, pesticides, and pathogens.
“When I first started forty years ago, I could put out a hive and just make sure it had some food at the end of the summer,” says Hamon. “In August, I’d take off a couple of boxes of honey, and that was life. Now, you’re reading, you’re planning….”
“There are so many more pests here,” agrees Ian Henry, who began by keeping bees in his native Australia. “They don’t have varroa in Australia, and the nectar flow there is ten months long. Here, it’s only two months.”
The bees depend on nectar flow from native blooming plants for honey manufacture. No nectar, no food for them (and therefore us). While there were once plenty of native trees and plants to provide nectar and pollen from early spring through fall, human development and land management have decimated that food supply, replacing it with what is essentially a food desert—vast swathes of pristine lawn, pavement, hard surface, and exotic plants—and forcing American beekeepers to supplemental feed.
“What we’ve lost is really good forage,” Mehalick explains. “Clover is one of the first sources of nectar in spring, in addition to black locust, tulip trees, [and] American holly.”
This dearth of available, season-long forage and its impact on pollinators has been a wakeup call on several fronts.
“Bees are an intersection between agriculture and ecology,” says Mark Dykes, Bee Squad Extension Coordinator at vanEnglesdorp Bee Lab. “They are not an indicator species, but there is an environmental factor. A lot of the things we do to improve honeybee forage also helps the native bees.”
To find nectar, honeybees generally forage as far as two miles from the hive. They’ve been known to go farther when the pickings are slim, but foraging beyond four miles wears out their wings, shortens the bee’s life expectancy, and weakens the colony.
Chemically purging our lawns of dandelion, chickweed, and clover (to the tune of millions of dollars, and subsequent damage to the ground water, tributaries, and Bay) has contributed considerably to the forage scarcity. In addition, community covenants that mandate close-shorn lawns in an effort to produce manicured conformity often also forbid the freer look of native gardens, which prevents the return of native plant corridors. Fortunately, things are beginning to turn around.
“People are now recognizing that a green lawn is a desert to a pollinator,” Mehalick says. “They need to have a diverse environment for pollinators, with different plants and food sources, and awareness of not using pesticides for a green lawn.”
“In addition, we need to replenish other native plants that bloom later in the season so the bees can collect nectar and pollen until they go into their winter huddle,” says Dykes, who was trained as an environmentalist but fell headlong into beekeeping. “We encourage people when they’re planting gardens to look at bloom time and what happens on July 29th or August 31st.”
While there’s a way to go, Dykes says he’s very encouraged by the increasing awareness of the needs of pollinators.
“Howard County put in an initiative to become bee-certified and certified for pollinators in general,” he says. “They’re encouraging culinary gardens, and thinking about pollinators when they do public projects. They may cost a little in the front end, but at the back end they will do a lot to help.”
“Because gardens are…groups of plants, they have the potential to perform the same essential biological roles fulfilled by healthy plant communities everywhere,” says entomologist Doug Tallamy, PhD, who urges each property owner—private, public and commercial—to devote at least 50 percent of their available landscaping space to native plants, whether or not you ever intend to keep bees.
“Maybe the best beekeepers are the bee watchers, planting native species so that bees have nesting grounds and choosing not to spray,” says Zach Lamas, PhD candidate at vanEnglsdorp Bee Lab.
This kind of stewardship is a win-win for the bees, the Bay, and us. It offers the bees—and other pollinators like gorgeous Luna moths, dragon flies, cute little blue orchard bees, and many more—forage and habitat, and it produces a beautiful, kaleidoscopic landscape. It benefits the Chesapeake, and it turns your yard into your own personal Nature Channel, a particular solace while we’re staying closer to home for longer stretches. The bees, who assiduously pollinate my citrus trees, cucumbers, squash, raspberries, blueberries, and more, are a captivating addition to our personal neighborhood, and I enjoy an indecent glob of honey in my coffee every single morning. All in all, a very sweet deal.