Behold the honeybee.
Tireless worker. Loyal to the homeland. Responsible for much of what we buy in the grocery store.
That's a big burden for such tiny wings.
Hundreds of visitors came Saturday to the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in Laurel to pay their respects, stroll around flower-dotted lawns and buy honey and beeswax candles as part of the fourth annual Maryland Honey Harvest Festival.
Thebees didn't disappoint, taking center stage for hourly demonstrations to prove how docile and industrious they are when compared to their unruly relative, the wasp, which visitors were informed "live to sting."
"They're furry," squealed Jessica McCormick, 6, of Waldorf, as beekeeper Rebecca Larson lifted a wooden frame from a hive. "They look like the Cheerios bee."
Most of the keepers worked in their shirt sleeves rather than donning a protective white suit with the hive-shaped hat. Thebees are friendliest when they are working and not being bothered, the keepers said.
"The most surprising thing to me is how calm they are," said Larson, who has one hive on her farm in Upper Marlboro. "You can get so close to them without them getting upset. The saying is, 'As busy asa bee.' It's true. They go right to work."
The keepers are all too conscious of how their hobby looks to some.
"We used to have thebees-in-the-beard demonstration. Our intent was to show how gentle they were," said Steve McDaniel, a beekeeper from Carroll County and past president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association. "But instead, people walked away saying, 'That guy's crazy.' It didn't get the right message across."
As a substitute, the festival offered a Beekeeper Rodeo, where contestants gently scooped up as manybees as possible in two minutes and deposited them in a glass jar.
Despite the festive atmosphere, all is not well with the tiny workers. The loss of habitat over decades has resulted in the near-disappearance of wild bees. In late 2006, keepers reported entire colonies of adult bees were missing. The mysterious absence was dubbed colony collapse disorder.
In her new book, "The Beekeeper's Lament," author Hannah Nordhaus describes a ravaged hive this way: "empty brood cells, scattered, disheartened survivors, plundering robber bees and mice and wax moths, filth and rot and ruin and invasion and death creeping in, like a neighborhood abandoned to the junkies."
The cause of the disorder has not been found. Scientists are working on theories that involve viruses, pesticides, malnutrition, parasites and stress.
Not far from the Patuxent Research Refuge, the Agriculture Department's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville continues to look for ways to combat diseases and enemies of the honeybee. The federal government estimates that one-third of all the food Americans eat is directly or indirectly derived from honeybee pollination.
"People are a lot more aware of how endangered bees are and want them saved," said Nordhaus in a phone interview. "Bees are never going to have a lot of money thrown at them, but now nonprofits and industry are putting money into research. I'm a lot more hopeful than I was when I finished writing the book."
Some keepers at the festival said they got into the hobby because they wanted to do something to save the bees.
"The honey is nice. It's a reward. But I'm trying to build and breed a colony that's resistant to disease," said Val Bolger, who tends about 120,000 bees on her farm near West River, south of Annapolis. "I don't know if it's coincidental or not, but my squash and strawberry crops are doing well with all the bees around."
In addition to using the festival as an education tool, representatives of the 600-member Maryland State Beekeepers Association hoped to recruit more keepers. A package of bees, which includes a queen and 3 pounds of worker bees, goes for about $60. The rest of the gear for an apiary brings to total cost to about $400.
What can humans do to help honeybees?
Don't use pesticides or fungicides near blooming flowers. Allow clover and wildflowers to grow.
"We're losing bees to starvation because they're just aren't enough wildflowers out there for them to survive on," said McDaniel. "There used to be goldenrod and asters, but people consider them weeds and spray and mow them. That's why we have the festival: to make people more aware."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun