As Jason Hough steers his Chevy Silverado along the curving country roads of western Howard County, he makes a habit of stopping and slowly backing up his truck to trade friendly gibes with fellow farmers he's caught sight of in his rearview mirror.
One neighbor, after confiding that his alfalfa isn't drying all that well in the recent humidity, promises he won't snitch to Hough's wife about his female passenger. Another wants to know why a reporter riding shotgun doesn't have anything better to do than write about honeybees.
Shifting back into drive once again, Hough turns onto a crude dirt road near a newly installed cellphone tower on the northeastern edge of the 285-acre Larriland Farm in Woodbine, and parks in the knee-high weeds to check on his beehives.
"I've been going through a major expansion this year," says Hough, who explains he has nearly doubled the total number of hives he maintains for the popular pick-your-own farm and several other local operations. He's gone from 80 to 160 hives, and now has more than 2 millionbees at Larriland alone.
For five years he's been selling his honey wholesale to Lynn Moore, one of three siblings who own and operate Larriland. But it flies off the shelf within days of delivery, so Moore's been asking Hough to increase production from the 2,000 to 3,000 pounds he's been harvesting from her hives each season, which ends Oct. 31.
He has complied with her request this spring, estimating his enlarged apiaries — or yards, as they're popularly called — will produce as much as 8,000 pounds of honey this year and that Larriland will get between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds to sell. Next year, Hough has set his sights on 13,000 pounds.
But Moore has another motive for employing a beekeeper.
Hough's bees are performing a critical step in the food production process, she says. While peaches are self-pollinating, and tomatoes, green beans and barley don't need bees' help, crops that rely on the winged insects for pollination include apples, cherries, berries, cucumbers, eggplant and pumpkins.
Moore points out that there are other native pollinators, such as bumblebees, wasps and butterflies, and that Larriland has set aside 50 acres of woods to accommodate them. But there aren't enough of those species of insects to get the job done, she says.
"Without these three yards and the 800,000 bees they each contain, the total yield from these crops would drop significantly, as much as 25 percent," Hough estimates. "They may get the same number of apples, for instance, but they'd be smaller and would fill fewer bushel baskets by volume."
The beehives that hobbyists tend also play an essential role, Moore and Hough both point out, especially as many farmers confront higher incidences of mite infestation and a new phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, in which bees die for unknown reasons.
Hough attended the Howard County Council hearings last fall when zoning rules for beekeeping were under discussion. The meetings ended in February as the county adopted regulations that said bees are no longer considered farm animals, which meant that hives need not be set back from neighboring properties by 200 feet, among other specifications.
"I've been in 4-H my entire life and I wanted to show my support for the right to have an agricultural project like beehives on your property," he said. "That's the way in to agriculture for most young people, and I place an extremely high value on such educational outlets."
Aside from defending beekeepers' rights, it's a simple numbers game, he explained.
"The more bees that are around, the more help farmers get with food production," he said. "The bees that hobbyists keep make a real difference to our local crops. And the number of beekeepers has been dramatically increasing over the past 10 years, which is a very good thing."
In Howard County, there are 83 registered beekeepers in 95 locations, and they tend to 235 colonies of honeybees, according to figures collected by the agricultural marketing division of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
While Hough has kept bees for 21 of his 35 years, beekeeping is only one of his many jobs. He works full time in information technology for Marriott International, where he's on call 24/7. He also works on the family's 64-acre Woodcamp Farm, a Mount Airy livestock operation known primarily for its meat products.
Jason and his wife, Lindsay, a first-grade teacher at Lisbon Elementary, live in the original, renovated farmhouse on the farm with their children, Andrew, 7, and Regan, 4. His parents, Dale and Jan Hough, and two brothers, Sean and Josh, also work on the farm and live in homes on the Hardy Road property.
Hough somehow fits in 20 to 30 hours a week tending his bees, also working for Triadelphia Lake View Farm, Sharp's at Waterford, Breezy Willow Farm and Clarks Elioak Farm. He has as many as 10 helpers ranging in age from 7 to 20 years old handling caretaking duties at any given time.
He also manages to eke out enough time to coach his son's Little League baseball team and serve on the board of the Howard County Fair. But beekeeping has held a special place in his heart since he was 14 and learned about bees in science class at Glenelg High School.
What appear to be stacks of weathered wooden drawers abandoned in a field are the hive bodies that contain the colonies of honeybees. The insects fly as far as three miles from the hive to locate nectar, pollen and water, Hough says, and they undeniably lead grueling lives.
Early June is peak time for honey making, and the bees, which are primarily female and only live about 12 weeks in the summer, are at the height of their industry. Male bees don't forage for nectar and are "a drain on society," Hough says, joking that some people would argue that's true of males of all species.
Hough fires up a smoker by lighting the tightly wound bundle of twine he's placed into the small tin pitcher with a mini-bellows on its handle. Standing on the opposite side from the hives' entrances, out of the bees' path, he spreads smoke around and inside the hive to disorient the insects while he checks on each colony's productivity.
Satisfied with their reduced activity, he looks in and happily stumbles upon a queen bee going about her business as one of her attendants closely follows behind. Each day the queens can lay between 1,000 and 2,000 eggs, which resemble grains of rice.
Hough gingerly slides more frames into some of the hive bodies, alternating blank ones with those that are already filled with nectar and capped-off hexagons containing honey.
"My wife never liked store-bought honey and then she tasted some from my hives," Hough says. "They can seem like two different products as far as flavor goes."
By next summer, Lindsay Hough estimates, her husband will be so busy that she'll never see him.
"No one else in my family is interested in beekeeping," Hough says. "But I caught the bug early and it just never let go."