WITH SUMMER creeping up on us, it's hard to think about preparing for winter, but that's just what local honeybees are doing. This is the beginning of the peak honey-producing season, called the "honey flow," when bees, taking advantage of the pollen available from spring blooms, make as much honey as they can to help feed the hive through the coming winter.
For local apiarists, or beekeepers, it's an important time to tend to the health of their bees and to prepare for the busy harvest season. Rick and Betsy Derrick are keeping their eyes on the hives that they tend on their Galesville property.
What started 12 years ago as a hobby for Rick Derrick has grown into a large side-business for the couple. They now run Freestate Bees with six hives on their property and seven more in Davidsonville, Owensville and Fairhaven. In addition to selling local honey, they import honey and sell beekeeping equipment.
When he began his apiary adventure, Rick Derrick, a financial planner in Annapolis, started with one hive.
"Back then, I didn't know anything about keeping bees," he said, "I put them in a truck, set it up in the back yard, bought a book and started reading."
Betsy Derrick was less enthusiastic for the first five or six years, but she has come to enjoy beekeeping even more than her husband - despite an allergy to bee stings, Rick Derrick says.
"The honey flow in Maryland typically lasts from middle of May to June," Rick Derrick said. The demand for local honey is great: The Derricks harvest it as soon as they can.
"You don't have to harvest it until later, but locals are always crying for it," he said. "We can sell all we can get, so we extract it in the end of June."
Rick Derrick said one hive needs between 60 to 80 pounds of honey to survive the winter. Anything more than that is called overflow and can be harvested. He said he harvests an average of 50 pounds of honey per hive. It can vary from year to year and from hive to hive - from more than 100 pounds to nothing.
Free State Bees is among the larger beekeeping businesses in the state. Bart Smith of the Maryland Department of Agriculture said 89 keepers keep 326 colonies in Anne Arundel County. He said 94 percent of the beekeepers in Maryland own fewer than 10 hives, and 55 percent own one or two hives.
Honey is not a major contributor to Maryland's economy. But honeybees are, Smith said.
"There are about $40 million worth of Maryland crops that either benefit from or require honeybee pollination," Smith said. Honeybees are important to the pollination of vine crops such as watermelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins and squash.
Because mites have devastated the wild bee population, some farmers rent honeybee hives from beekeepers to pollinate their crops. "Bees are rented for blueberries, strawberries ... and of course apples," Smith said.
Rick Derrick tried renting his bees out to farmers one year, but said it was stressful on him and the bees. But he said that his neighbors enjoy the benefits of pollinators living so close to their gardens.
"Most neighbors like to have honeybees around once you explain that they're not aggressive like yellow jackets and they are going to help with pollination," Rick Derrick said. It probably helps that he offers them jars of honey in June and says, "This is from your flowers."
A few years ago, the Derricks had 20 hives on their 1.5-acre lot, and the water supply became an issue. In their quest for water, the bees congregated around neighbors' birdbaths and water spigots. The Derricks' have since scaled back.
Despite the threat of being stung, Smith said working with bees is safe with proper training and experience.
"Like people, bees are nice to work with but there's always a few ornery ones out there," he said. "I've been known to go through a hundred colonies a day and not get stung. And I've been known to go through one hive and get stung a dozen times."
A beekeeper for close to 30 years, Smith keeps a couple of colonies at his Crownsville home and harvests honey as a hobby. And he oversees the hives that the Department of Agriculture keeps for educational purposes around the county.
Stephen Barry, coordinator of outdoor education for Anne Arundel County public schools, said that his programs have kept hives at three sites with Smith for at least 15 years.
At West River United Methodist Center in West River, director Andy Thornton said, they created a log hive in addition to their traditional observation hive to simulate a natural environment.
"We took a piece of pine, hollowed it out and put the bees in," he said.