After spying a small praying mantis perched on a slightly spent bee-balm plant, Leslie Englehart tried twice to cup it in her hand, but the slender green insect bounded artfully, and frustratingly, out of view.
"Ross, can you get it?" she asked her husband as they peered intently between the tall stems of spiky red blooms that attract honeybees. They worked in tandem, determined not to let the welcome predator get away.
"They eat aphids," Ross called out as he captured the beneficial bug, which feasts on the small insects that destroy vegetation, and gently deposited it among the thriving tomatoes and other plants on their 5-acre property off a winding country road in Dayton.
Happily interrupted by that lucky find, the Engleharts headed back toward the western edge of their land to give a quick tour of their three styles of beehive to a visitor.
Members of the Howard County Beekeepers Association, they became backyard apiarists in 2010 and enjoy sharing what they've learned. Ross Englehart said he reads about bees every day, having devoured 25 books on the subject and subscribing to the American Bee Journal, to which he's contributed two articles, and to Bee Culture magazine.
The couple's intense interest in beekeeping is one of the many success stories of the group, which has more than doubled its membership over the past three years, from 25 to 55, according to its president, Janice Asato.
Asato has focused since 2009 on attracting families to the association, and a free event that's open to the public is planned for Saturday, July 21, at the Glenwood branch library. Along with having an observation hive on hand with live bees, members will discuss honeybee biology, products of the hive and the benefits of beekeeping.
"Backyard beekeeping isn't a sport or a hobby, and it has always attracted a niche audience," said Asato, a British native.
Building their ranks
Many newcomers have been motivated to join beekeeping groups in recent years, Asato said, because of concern over colony collapse disorder, a worldwide phenomenon in which worker bees abruptly disappear from a colony, causing it to fail.
"Prior to CCD getting media coverage and the public reacting and wanting to know how they could help, joining a beekeeping club was not high on everyone's list of things they wanted to do," said Asato, a Mount Airy resident and project manager for a group of entomologists.
"CCD has brought in a new view of beekeeping, as people educated at different levels now all share a common bond and purpose."
Ross Englehart, a self-proclaimed "gadgeteer" who owns a patent on a caulking tool, says the prospect of collecting honey occurred to him well after he and his wife decided to give beekeeping a try because they'd "heard a lot about CCD and the demise of bees."
Leslie Englehart, who tutors children in reading and writing, said she quickly was taken with the idea of keeping bees because she has "always been an environmental type."
"It's so wonderful living out here, and I feel fortunate to steward this land," she said of the couple's western Howard home, where they've lived for 30 years. "I set a goal over 20 years ago of planting 10 trees a year to support pollination. This year, I planted 33 seedlings."
But not everyone interested in backyard beekeeping owns such an expansive property.
With that in mind, the Howard County Council approved zoning regulations in February 2011 that state that bees are no longer considered farm animals and that a 200-foot setback from neighboring properties is not required for hives, among other specifications.
Residents living on smaller properties earned the freedom to maintain hives with that zoning change, and the newer rules will continue to bolster the ranks of backyard beekeepers, experts say.
Last year, there were 83 registered beekeepers in 95 county locations, and they tended 235 colonies of honeybees, according to the Howard County Economic Development Authority.