Most people would be unnerved by finding a swarm of bees in their backyard, but Brad Criddle, of Finksburg, not only tolerates their presence, he encourages and cultivates it.
Criddle, along with the Carroll County Beekeepers Association, will be taking part in Bear Branch Nature Center's Honey Harvest Festival on Sunday at the Hashawha Environmental Center in Westminster. The festival will take place at the same time as the nature center's Monarch Madness event, which celebrates the monarch butterfly's migration to Mexico.
Dawn Harry, Bear Branch naturalist, said the butterfly and the honeybee festivals are celebrated together because of the insects' status as pollinators and their precarious place in nature right now.
According to the Bee Informed Partnership 2011-2012 survey, the number of honey-producing bee colonies is down 45 percent from 1975, with just over 6,000 colonies, down from more than 11,000.
Criddle said there are a number of factors leading to the decline in honeybee populations.
"One of the big issues beekeepers see is called colony collapse disorder. The bees will be there one day, and then the next they'll be gone. The bees will abandon everything — the food, the brood, everything," Criddle said. "It's basically caused by three things: a combination of stress, pesticides and diet."
Criddle said those who fear bee stings may not worry about the death of the honeybee, but the insects provide a vital role in the food chain.
"They're important pollinators, and if it weren't for the honeybee, we wouldn't have much of our food," Criddle said. "Almonds, cantaloupes, peaches, all of the things like that would be devastated or nonexistent without our honeybees."
According to the University of Maryland Extension department of entomology, 90 percent of apples, cantaloupes, cucumbers and watermelons that are dependent on insect pollination rely on the honeybee to survive and thrive.
At the event, the Carroll County Beekeepers will discuss ways to protect the honeybee at home, including laying off the use of pesticides and planting bee-friendly gardens of plants that flower year-round. In addition, they will offer guests an opportunity to peer into a working hive of active bees.
Criddle, who keeps a hive in his backyard, said the average beehive has between 30,000 and 60,000 bees, and can possibly produce up to 80 pounds of honey in a good year, with Maryland bees producing honey once a year in the summer.
Criddle said that he purchased a queen from a California queen breeder this year. Queens are shipped by FedEx along with several attendants in a queen case, to be opened by the beekeeper and established in an apiary, also known as a bee yard.
Criddle said he first became interested in beekeeping after his father came into the hobby in his late 60s.
"At first, I thought he was crazy, but the more I looked at it, and the more he got into it, the more interested I became," Criddle said. "So when the time was right, I looked up the Carroll County Beekeepers and took their spring course."
The association meets once a month at Bear Branch and works to encourage beekeeping in the area. Criddle said anyone who wishes to become a beekeeper just needs to take the association's beekeeper course, which will provide information on where to purchase the appropriate equipment.
"It's not terribly expensive to get started, but it costs you a few hundred dollars at the start," Criddle said. "Of course, you could save some money if you don't want to cover your head or wear gloves, but I don't recommend it."