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In the face of threats and pests, Harford beekeepers keep hives buzzing and honey flowing

For Harford Magazine

Each spring, the population of John Knapstein’s Forest Hill property grows by the thousands. The honeybee population, that is.

“By early March, the queen bee starts to lay eggs, and she lays between 1,500 and 2,000 eggs a day,” says Knapstein, beekeeper and owner of Top of the Hill Apiary.

Come May and June – the population’s peak – more than 80,000 bees make the five box-like hives on Knapstein’s property their home, pollinating plants as far as five miles away and producing up to 150 pounds of honey a year.

It’s quite a sight, Knapstein says, while sitting inside his “honey house” – a shed where he keeps equipment to care for the hives and extract honey.

“You can sit there and be mesmerized by them when they come back, full of pollen on their legs,” he says, surrounded by white buckets filled with thick, golden and sweet-smelling honey. He keeps the shed doors closed as much as possible to prevent errant bees from buzzing around his stash.

While the bees are as busy as, well, bees, in the spring, local beekeepers work year-round to keep them healthy. Changes in the weather, insect enemies and low food supplies can all affect a hive’s viability, they say. But the rewards that come with owning hives, including abundant crops, more bees in the environment and ample supplies of honey, are worth the effort.

“There’s nothing like going into your hives and getting fresh honey,” Knapstein says. “And I’m trying to do my part to enhance nature.”

Getting started

According to the state Department of Agriculture, nearly 2,200 registered beekeepers cared for more than 15,600 bee colonies across Maryland in 2017. In Harford County, 136 registered beekeepers cared for 644 colonies. Each colony includes a queen, drones (male bees) and workers (female bees).

For many local beekeepers, the promise of pollination drew them into the practice. Lloyd and Ruth Anne Snyder began beekeeping more than 30 years ago. While they were dating, Lloyd Snyder purchased his first hive at a farm equipment auction to help his then-girlfriend’s father get more apples out of his small orchard.

“He said, ‘You have those apple trees out there, and I think you’d have a better crop of apples if you had the bees to pollinate them,’ ” Ruth Anne Snyder recalls. “Lloyd charmed him, and within six months, my father had 20 hives.”

Lloyd Snyder’s grandfather and father kept hone bees on a farm in Pennsylvania. He saw firsthand how crops thrived when honeybees transferred grains of pollen from one plant to another. So when the Snyders bought their White Hall home in 1987, it just made sense for them to continue the tradition.

“You can take the kid off the farm, but you never get the farm out of the kid,” Lloyd Snyder says.

The couple runs Snyder’s Apiaries with their daughter, Laura. In addition to the hives on their property, the family manages hives throughout Harford County, Baltimore County and parts of Pennsylvania.

For others, like Jason Rubin and Alan Cohen of Jarrettsville, boosting the local honeybee population was the initial draw.

Studies show bee populations in the United States have declined over the past decade, and a survey from the Bee Informed Partnership, which works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that in 2015, beekeepers lost 28 percent of their colonies in the winter – and 28 percent in the summer. In a 2017 survey, about 5,000 of the nation’s beekeepers reported they lost a third of their colonies (33 percent) between April 2016 and March 2017. Still, there are signs the numbers are improving. During the survey’s previous 10 years, the loss hovered around 40 percent. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported about 2.89 million bee colonies existed in the country as of April 2017 – a 3 percent increase from April 2016.

After taking a short course on beekeeping at Harford Community College, Rubin and Cohen started their first hives in 2016.

“It’s an organic, living breathing thing in that hive,” says Rubin, who is president of the Susquehanna Beekeepers Association, a group of more than 150 beekeepers from Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties. “They all work together. There are no individuals. They are fascinating.”

Day to day

Caring for honeybees is a year-round process, and getting them through the winter is one of the biggest challenges, local beekeepers say.

“With the winter die-off, we were losing 50 percent of our hives every year,” says Jane Kuhl, a beekeeper who maintains eight hives with her husband, Drew Denton, on their Bel Air farm. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose 100 percent of the hives. It felt like the first couple of years, every spring we were starting from scratch again.”

Since bees don’t fly outside the hive when temperatures dip below 55 degrees, and flowering plants aren’t as plentiful after September, owners supplement bees’ food with sugar water or fondant in the late fall and winter. When Kuhl and Denton began feeding their bees more often, their winter survival rates improved, Denton says. This winter, the couple only lost one hive.

“It’s continuous learning,” Kuhl says. “Every time we go out there, we learn something or see something new.”

Colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which bees abandon their hives, increased use of pesticides in the community and parasites like Varroa mites can also hurt a hive’s health. In a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, more than two-fifths of beekeepers said mites were harming their hives.

To prevent the mites from attacking the bees, many beekeepers open and treat their hives throughout the year with special acids.

Once spring arrives, beekeepers can introduce new bees to their hives. Some buy bees from local suppliers like the Snyders, while others order them online. Regardless of how the bees arrive, each hive must have its own queen, beekeepers say.

Yet even then, a rainy spring can mean late blooms and lower production. Beekeepers like Knapstein are always watching the weather and monitoring when local wildflowers and trees like tulip poplars are blooming.

“You can tell a lot by just watching,” he says. “The queen will eat up to 80 times her weight in one day. If [the bees] are bringing in pollen, you know the queen is laying eggs.”

Surprisingly, several local beekeepers say, they receive few bee stings.

“When we first started, we didn’t wear gloves because we wanted to feel what was going on,” Rubin says. “In the spring and during summer, it’s not likely that you will get stung because [the bees] have a one-track mind to get nectar and pollen.”

As summer nears, bees will fill the hive’s frames with honey, and crops like the cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers on Kuhl and Denton’s Lost Acre Farm will flourish.

Sweet rewards

Knapstein usually harvests his first honey of the season around July 4. Wearing gloves and a protective hat and veil, he pulls the frames from the hives and takes them into his shed, where he scrapes off the honeycomb cell caps with a hot knife. Then he places the frames into a stainless steel extractor – a machine that spins the frames for about 10 minutes until the honey drops off the bottom.

Like Kuhl and Denton, Knapstein stores the honey in buckets until he’s ready to bottle and sell it. Color and taste vary from season to season, depending on where the bees get their pollen.

“Honey is as different as wine,” Kuhl says. “You don’t go into a liquor store and say, ‘I want your red wine.’ You have hundreds to choose from.”

It’s also not cheap to produce. Beekeeping, especially during the first year, is a big investment, Rubin says.

“You can spend about $500 just starting,” Rubin says. “Once you start expanding, that means more hive boxes, more frames, more jars for honey.”

But over time, the bees just become a valuable part of their everyday lives, he says.

"Alan and I have noticed how much more in tune with nature we are since becoming beekeepers," Rubin says. "We have a keener perception of our environment. We are much more observant of the flowers, fruits and trees on our property, what happens with the changing of seasons, the fluctuations in weather, and how the bees react to all of these elements. All of these things taken together are integral to our lives and to the lives of our honeybees."

Buzzworthy facts

  • Across Maryland, 1,800 beekeepers maintain 14,000 bee colonies.
  • A colony includes a queen, drones (male bees) and workers (female bees).
  • Bees don’t fly outside the hive when temperatures dip below 55 degrees. So owners supplement bees’ food with sugar water or fondant in the late fall and winter.
  • A bee can travel up to five miles to get nectar and pollen.
  • A queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day.
  • In the winter, the temperature inside the hives can reach 95 degrees due to the bees forming a cluster.
  • Honey bees beat their wings up to 230 times per second.
  • Bee populations in the United States are on the rise again after a decade of declines, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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