Growing number of beekeepers, hives abuzz in Baltimore

Beekeeping in Baltimore (or anywhere) is challenging – but the rewards are sweet.

Michael Greenway and Judie Misterka strap into their white space-like suits. They zip up the netted hoods and Velcro shut any enclosures where honeybees could sneak inside and deliver a pinching sting. Then the husband and wife set off into their Lauraville backyard, where 4 acres house more than 45 beehives. They call it Argonne Valley Apiary. It's one of the largest in the city.

Greenway, 70, and Misterka, 65, are just two of the 67 registered beekeepers in the city, keeping a total of 204 bee colonies in 81 locations. And the regional practice, which dates back to the 17th century, is only growing, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Beekeeping in Maryland has nearly doubled, from 987 beekeepers in 2005 to 1,895 as of December. In the city, the numbers have likely also doubled as more people learn about bees and their benefits, said Cybil Preston, the state agriculture department's chief apiary inspector.

"There are more people wanting to save the bees, even people living in the city. They're saying 'This is feasible. We can do this, too,' and it just caught on," she said. "I think people who live in the city or urbanites are just as concerned as people in suburbs, and I think they find a way to make it work."

Beth Sherring is president of Baltimore Backyard Beekeepers Network, which hosts happy hours for local beekeepers, promotes best practices and lobbies to streamline regulations. She said the desire to boost pollination motivates beekeepers.

"One in every three bites of food that you eat was made possible by a pollinator," Sherring said, "either a honey bee or some other kind of pollinator," such as birds, bats, butterflies and moths. But advocacy groups are concerned about declining populations of pollinators.

Because of bees, "there's a greater diversity and better production of flowers and vegetable plants, so ... those are the overarching benefits," Sherring said.

Retired apiarist Jerry Fischer, 79, is a founding member of the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association, one of the largest beekeeping groups in the state.

Other animals, the Rosedale resident notes, can be controlled. Not so the honeybee.

"You have no control over a honeybee. You learn its habitat. You learn to work with it so it benefits you, but you have no way to change it. … They are still wild insects," he said.

Fischer grew up on farms where bees were used to pollinate crops. Only as he got older did he begin to sell the honey they produced.

Now, farms pay Fischer to run hives — he has about 95 around the state. In turn, he also produces his own line of honey, called Fischer Apiary. He swears it's some of the best and contends that commercial brands rob honey of its nutritional value when it's processed.

"The only way to get raw, natural honey is to go to a beekeeper," he said.

But not all aspects of beekeeping in the city are sweet. There are pests, diseases, fickle weather that can damage hives, mysterious die-offs and of course, stinging.

Misterka and Greenway lift the tops of the hives' boxes, pulling out 8- to 10-inch frames with bees clinging to the honeycomb. Most are working, regurgitating nectar into the octagonal crevices, while others are eating, slurping up honey with their tiny pink tongues. One rogue bee slips into a small opening between Greenway's glove and his sleeve and stings him. Later, Misterka — passionate, but very allergic to bees — is stung on the lip. It swells to triple its size. It comes with the territory.

"Even though you get stung, it's very relaxing," Greenway said of beekeeping.

"It gives you an opportunity to focus on something besides the economy and the problems that people face."

The couple has been raising bees for the past eight years, ever since Misterka, an elementary school science and math teacher, suggested taking a pollinators course to help write new curriculum for her class. For them, the bees are their chance to play, Greenwald said, although today's beekeeping is much different from his experience growing up on a farm in Michigan with an apiary.

Before, it was a matter of checking on the beehives once every season. Now, seasoned apiarists recommend checking the hives every two to three weeks due to the many changes bees could experience, often because of pests or overcrowding.

"It means you really have to spend more time with the bees," said Greenway, who spends 20 to 24 hours weekly tending to the hive location and has two volunteers who work roughly 15 hours a week, making sure hives have adequate amounts of water and honey — also the bees' food supply — and that there are no pests weakening the hives.

"I have an MBA, and I didn't study for my MBA as long and as a hard as I have to keep bees," he said.

There are also regulations. The state requires beekeepers to register beehives. Hives that cross state lines must also be inspected. Otherwise, the city makes recommendations for beekeepers, suggesting a maximum of two colonies per 2,500 square feet and a clean location at least five feet from any property lines, Preston said. (For their part, Greenway, Misterka and Sherring say their colonies don't interfere with their neighbors.)

Preston also suggested keeping hives where there is good forage. Honey bees travel within a 3-mile radius from the hive, Sherring said.

"A lot of bee colonies that are kept in urban or suburban areas these days are actually doing better than the ones that are kept out in the country," said Sherring. Farmland, for instance, can be exposed to pesticides that are harmful to bees.

But the state is working to keep the bee population thriving. In April, Maryland became the first state to pass legislation, beginning in 2018, that prohibits the retail sale and household use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Still, despite the number of beekeepers increasing throughout the city and state, the number of colonies tends to fluctuate, Preston said.

"It's getting harder and harder to judge. … Weather cycles do play a big part in the possible mortality," Preston said. "But you could think you have given your hive everything. A beekeeper could not cover every variable."

Last year, Maryland lost nearly 61 percent of its hives — one of the highest losses in the country, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; factors may have included parasites, farming practices and pesticides. This year, many beekeepers have reported hives dying over winter. Misterka and Greenway lost at least four. They attribute it to the abnormally warm winter.

"We call it 'crazy Maryland weather.' Having a warm December like [last year] and diving into the lengthy cold temperatures in January is a bit extreme," for bees, said Preston, noting that many bees didn't realize it was winter and were still active, causing them to need more energy, and thus more honey, than usual. While bees mostly rely on their own supply of honey throughout the year, and store up for the winter, many beekeepers had to supply more honey, or sugar syrup, to feed their bees.

Said Greenway: "We wound up feeding the bees through December, January, parts of February and a few small hives we even fed in May because they didn't have enough energy to get out and find food."

Beekeeping can also be pricey, but profitable. The protective gear alone can cost up to $150, while the bees can cost between $100 and $180, according to Sherring. Boxes and frames can cost around $300. Factor in additional equipment and sugar, and beekeeping is at least a $600 to $700 investment, said Preston, who owns 40 hives of her own.

But the honey produced can pay for the maintenance costs and equipment.

Along with the apiary, Misterka and Greenway run a honey business. Their bees produce honey from the blossoming clover, goldenrod, black locust and tulip poplar trees nearby.

"We extract as the seasons change, as the flowers change, and as the pollens change, so we get different flavors by doing that," Greenway said.

Extracting five times a year gets them a variety of tastes, including a summer, fall and summer wildflower honey.

Last year, their bees produced 3,400 pounds, 1,000 of which they sold at farmers' markets, Greenway said. They made $5,000 in profit.

"The bees do all the work," Greenway said.

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