Alex Kochmarsky has a full-time hobby, and it's a sweet one at that.
The 75-year-old native of the Ukraine is a beekeeper with a small but loyal following of neighbors and friends who have come to rely on the raw honey he cultivates for Pot-Spring Bees.
The modest business, which Kochmarsky runs out of his son-in-law and daughter's house near Pot Spring Road, in Timonium, is mostly a labor of love.
Customers can pick up his honey, which is not sold online or at farmers markets, at the family's Dalewood Road home between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays after submitting a request by email, phone or letter. Kochmarsky offers several different styles of honey in 12-ounce and 20.8-ounce jars for $7.50 and $13, respectively.
"It's a lot of work for Alex," said Kochmarsky's son-in-law, Boris Borisov, 57, who came to the United States from the Ukraine with his wife, Yana, and 7-year-old son, Igor, 20 years ago. "It keeps him busy."
Kochmarsky was an amateur beekeeper — who also are known as apiarists — in Ukraine for 25 years before he, too, came to the U.S., in 2005, Borisov said.
Although Kochmarsky's limited English makes socializing difficult, it gives him plenty of time to tend to the honey bees' hives in bee boxes perched on a hill behind the family's home.
Borisov helps with the bees only "once a week when [Kochmarsky] needs to make another hive or when hives need to be examined," he said.
As much as Kochmarsky and Borisov enjoy working with the 10 active colonies of bees that yield about 100 pounds or more of honey in a season, harvesting honey is not necessarily a profitable venture. Usually only six or seven of the colonies of the Pot-Spring Bees' hives survive the winter, when the bees are most vulnerable, Borisov said — an attrition rate plays into the business's bottom line.
"It's kind of like playing chess with Mother Nature," Borisov said. "We usually break even. It's really a hobby because it would be difficult to make money doing it. You'd have to have a lot more colonies to make money."
Kochmarsky's affinity for handling hives that hold as many as 60,000 bees each was on display during a recent visit. As the bees buzzed around him, he calmly pulled frames from the bee box and conversed easily with Borisov, who was at the foot of the hill, in their native language, Ukrainian.
The benefits of bees
The benefits of having honeybees in the neighborhood shouldn't be overlooked, Borisov said.
"The bees can fly as far as 2 miles and can pollinate neighbors' flowers," he added.
Spring and early summer are the bees' busiest time to work, when they collect nectar with tubelike tongues, called proboscis, while also pollinating flowers.
The bees drain the nectar from the flowers and then store it in their stomachs for a half hour while it mixes with proteins and enzymes that turn it into honey. They then deposit the honey into hexagonal-shaped cells made of their own wax on wood or plastic frames that fit inside the bee box. The bees continue the activity until the combs are full.
The honey, which is the bees' food source, is eventually thickened when the bees flap their wings to evaporate water in the nectar before covering each cell with wax and then moving on to the next cell.
Borisov said that he also pitches in to help when it's time to extract the honey, which is done with a metal container that holds the frames in place while the container spins and forces the honey by centrifugal force to the sides of the device.
The honey eventually drips down the sides to the bottom of the extractor and through a valve to a bucket where it is collected before bottling.
To get to that point, however, Borisov said that protecting the bees from predators, including mice, wasps and ants, is an important part of producing honey.
The Central Maryland Beekeepers Association was a prime source for classes when Kochmarsky was getting up to speed on local beekeeping methods. Although local suppliers helped to provide equipment, Borisov said that he and his father-in-law built their own Ukrainian-style hives.
In addition to helping Kochmarsky with the bees, Borisov is kept busy with a business he owns and operates in Woodlawn that manufactures therapeutic footwear for diabetics who have sensitive or swollen feet.
The Borisovs decided to come to the U.S. after they had expanded the shoe business in the Ukraine from a simple shop to a large factory over the prior decade. After a couple of months in New York, the couple decided to move to Baltimore, which Boris felt would be a better place to set up the shoe factory.
"We felt that Baltimore was very welcoming place for a business," he said of the enterprise, which employs 15 people.
But he had more than business in mind when he came to America.
"I wanted a better opportunity for my children," said Boris, whose second son, Greg, was born in the U.S. and is a rising sophomore and varsity soccer player at Dulaney High School, while Igor, now 27, attends dental school in Arizona.
The bees' needs
While it's unknown how many apiarists live and operate in the Towson area, thethe Central Maryland Beekeepers Association has 359 members, according to board member Bonnie Raindrop.
"But that number fluctuates," Raindrop cautioned. "Some people who start beekeeping get discouraged and stop beekeeping after a couple of years when their hives die."
Raindrop said that she has become "alarmed" by hive deaths, which have been increasing rapidly in the past five years or so, an estimate backed by a United States Department of Agriculture survey showing that honey bee colony losses in Maryland have averaged 53 percent during that period.
Raindrop said that insecticides, especially ones known as neonicotinoids, are a huge part of the problem leading to what she called "massive pollinator die-offs."
The former longtime Towson resident said she lost all seven of her hives that she had at a friend's farm in New Freedom, Pa. last winter.
"My friend's farm was surrounded by fields of neonic-treated corn and soybeans, as well as residential suburbs that probably unknowingly applied some of the more than 300 home garden products containing neonicotinoids," Raindrop said.
Her bees are doing better this summer, she said of the thriving hives she keeps on her property in Lauraville, in northeast Baltimore, which abuts the Herring Run Park watershed.
"Being next to a watershed area where there is no spraying [for mosquitos] helps," she said, adding that many residents in her area are aware of the dangers of insecticides and avoid them.
Her fellow CMBA legislative committee member, Luke Goembel, who operates six hives, is also having success this summer on his half-acre lot in Idlewylde.
The retired chemist said that his recent harvest was limited to 114 pounds of honey due to the rainy spring.
"I've gotten as much as 300 pounds before," he said of using his homemade honey extractor to harvest the final product. "The rain affects the bees' ability to collect the nectar to make honey, and the bees need a lot of honey to make it through the winter. That's why I don't harvest again in the fall."
Goembel said that the joys of beekeeping are many.
"I started keeping bees as an inexpensive source of honey, since I had taken a mead-making class with my father-in-law and was shocked at how expensive a gallon of honey was," he said. "Now, I not only supply my family with all of the honey we need, but I have found that keeping bees has put me in touch with nature unlike anything I have done before. Also, the friendship I've found with fellow beekeepers is profound. I had no idea that producing my own honey would add so much more to my life, but it has."
Mary Gamper, who tends to several hives that each produce about 30 pounds of honey annually at her Towson home, said her reason for beekeeping for the past decade is simple.
"I'm a middle-aged woman whose kids are gone and I like to garden," she said. "I wanted to be green and I wanted to eat healthier than I used to. I started beekeeping because I love having honey in my tea in the morning. But being a beekeeper is much more difficult than it used to be. The fun part is getting to share the fascinating story about the lives of bees with others. I love honey, and how cool is it that it comes right from the back yard?"
Those wanting to buy honey from Pot-Spring Bees can email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an appointment.