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.
"Those numbers have probably gone up this year," said Kathy Zimmerman, HCEDA's agricultural development manager.
"There is still concern about CCD, though our bees in Maryland don't travel to other states so we don't have a big problem here," Zimmerman said, referring to the primary way bee populations are infested with varroa mites that weaken the colony and contribute to CCD. "People still understand the need for more bees to improve pollination, and for protecting bees from CCD."
The mild winter of 2011-2012 was not a boon for the Engleharts' honeybee colonies: Three of the four they had going into the season were lost by spring.
Ross Englehart thinks the bees, which normally cluster around the queen bee to keep her toasty at 97 degrees in winter months, got confused by warmer-than normal weather and left the hive to look for food, spending more energy than they normally would at that time of year.
"Since there was no food for the foragers to find, the bees fed [more heavily] on their stores and couldn't survive," he said. "But that's a theory. There's a saying that if you're in a room with 10 beekeepers and you pose a question, you'll get 12 answers."
After purchasing bees from Woodcamp Farms' Jason Hough, a farmer and beekeeper in Woodbine, the Engleharts now have five hives, and "they're all doing great," Leslie Englehart said.
"Our bees are seen around our community of 34 houses all the time," she said. "A neighbor who grows catnip just to attract bees often will tell me she's seen one of my girls," she added, referring to the fact that female honeybees do all the foraging.
Since they are nearly starting over in their third season, the Engleharts are down to the last third of a jar of their bees' honey, which was produced last year and is a light amber color called water white. They won't be taking any from their new bees this summer because they don't want to weaken the colonies, Leslie said.
Ross Englehart said they will continue to work their hives as a team, to which Leslie Englehart added that her job is to serve as "bee whisperer" and pacify the bees with her voice.
"I talk to them calmly and in a low voice, and it works," she said.
"She accuses me of being rude," her husband interjected with a smile. "But she can make the bees very sweet and calm before we work in the hives, and we don't have to use smoke to settle them down."
Asato said what the Engleharts describe is not uncommon.
"Bees say, 'We don't mind what you're doing, just do it with respect — methodically, slowly, gently,'" she said.
She likes to call the Engleharts and other members who volunteer in the community "bee ambassadors" because they educate the public at outreach events, such as the club's work at the Robinson Nature Center in Columbia.
"Outreach ... draws people in, and there are a lot of different aspects to attract families," Asato said.
Meeting topics for all ages have included beeswax candles and other crafts. For adults, a presenter recently talked about making mead, an alcoholic drink created from fermented honey, water and spices.
Plus, a lot of the group's events are excuses to socialize, Asato said, such as the party the Engleharts will host in a couple of weeks, which will involve a honey-extraction demonstration and a potluck dinner.
"It's important that young people are encouraged to take an interest in beekeeping, as the average beekeeper is in their 40s," Asato said. "It's an art and a science, and it must be passed down to younger generations. It's all about what's best for the bees."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun