An overgrown graveyard downtown, where some of Baltimore's early historical figures rest in walled isolation, buzzes now with new life.
Just inside the locked gate of Old St. Paul's Cemetery on Martin Luther King Boulevard, honeybees zip in and out of a white hive perched on cinder blocks. They flit past weathered headstones for a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the hero of the 1814 defense of Fort McHenry, a Civil War general and other long-gone luminaries.
The hive, put there by staff and students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, is one of the latest — and certainly one of the more unusual — installments in the growing pastime of backyard beekeeping.
It's a project of the university's "Wellness Hub," which aims to get students beyond their academic studies to enrich all aspects of their lives. Kate McManus, director of building operations and food service for the downtown campus, said she was inspired to try beekeeping after hearing a longtime apiarist, as they're known, tout the ease with which just about anybody can produce his or her own honey.
"At the end of the lecture," McManus said, "I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm doing that!'"
Honeybees are essential to agriculture, helping to pollinate more than $40 million worth of crops in Maryland alone. But beekeeping as a hobby has grown in popularity as more people get into buying and even growing their own locally produced food.
There are more than 1,500 registered beekeepers statewide, most of them hobbyists, with more than 11,600 colonies in 1,968 locations, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
The beekeeping community in Baltimore City is tiny by comparison, state figures show, with 36 registered keepers of 115 colonies.
While cities might seem odd places to keep bees, apiarists say urban landscapes actually offer plenty of opportunities for the industrious insects to find the nectar and pollen they need to make honey.
"You can get a better yield in the city than you can in the country," said Steve McDaniel, a longtime beekeeper and former president of the Maryland Beekeepers Association whose lecture at the university in February spurred McManus to act.
"The city's got plenty of nectar and pollen because we live in such a dense area and lots of people plant," agreed Meme Thomas, director of Baltimore Honey, a nonprofit collective of urban beekeepers. And bees can find sustenance in the unlikeliest of places — vacant, weedy lots flowering with clover and dandelions.
McDaniel, who lives in Manchester in Carroll County, says he keeps a couple hives downtown so his bees can collect pollen from the basswood trees growing along city streets. That honey has a delicious, lemony flavor, he said.
Shortly after hearing McDaniel talk, McManus started a hive at her home, then recruited students to do it at the cemetery. In May, about 25 students helped assemble and paint two hives to put in the cemetery, next to the medical school and health sciences buildings. They populated the boxes with a pair of bee colonies mail-ordered from Kentucky, but one queen died, prompting a merger under the surviving queen.
That minor setback aside, McManus said getting started was neither expensive nor all that difficult. Hive materials, equipment and bees all cost less than $1,000, she said. And while the graveyard offers plenty of room and even some flowering shrubs, hives really need very little space.
"People can bee-keep anywhere," she said. A rooftop deck or even an apartment balcony will do.
By next year, McManus said, she hopes the hive will have produced enough honey to furnish some for human consumption. Drawer-sized wooden trays added to the hive like layers on a cake can be filled with eight to 12 pounds of the sweet stuff.
Now that classes have resumed at the university, McManus hopes to enlist students in tending to the hive. They don't really require much maintenance, but she says she'd like to use the hive to teach students, faculty and staff that beekeeping is environmentally responsible. The bees pollinate trees, flowers, vegetables and fruits in the neighborhood, and they produce a nutritious food.
Carey Smith, a student in the medical school's public health program, said she's particularly interested in using honey to promote gardening and better diet, especially in poor neighborhoods lacking the food choices of more affluent communities.
Some beekeeping enthusiasts, McManus included, also think locally produced honey should help them with allergies to pollen in their neighborhoods.
"I'm extremely allergic to oak pollen," she said, "and so I'm hoping that next year I take a couple tablespoons of honey every day and I don't have that kind of reaction."
But there's no scientific evidence that honey combats pollen allergies, according to Dr. Alvin Sanico, medical director of Greater Baltimore Medical Center's Asthma Sinus Allergy Program. The pollen most people are allergic to comes from non-flowering trees and grasses, he points out, while bees tend to collect pollen from flowers.
Even if some non-flowering pollen does get picked up and included in the honey, Sanico says, it's too little or variable to be of much help in de-sensitizing someone who might break out in fits of sneezing and wheezing whenever pollen is on the wind. While downing a dose of honey can't hurt and certainly tastes good, the doctor warns allergic people not to substitute it for traditional medical treatment involving shots.
McManus says she hopes the lessons students learn beekeeping will stick with them.
"The mission of the wellness hub," she said, "is to teach students things to take with them after they leave college. It's not just the college experience, the classroom learning, but also these methods of living."
Smith says for now, she'll have to limit her beekeeping to school. Her roommate is very allergic to bee stings, she said. For while honeybees are gentle creatures for the most part, keepers like McManus acknowledge that opening and handling the hives does get you stung now and again.
But there's another intangible benefit to having a beehive in your yard that McManus said she's discovered. "It's kind of like an aquarium outdoors. It's really relaxing sitting there watching all of them. They're very productive little bees."