In hundreds of hives across the region, honeybees are clustering in big groups to keep warm. But the beekeepers came out into the cold Tuesday night to gather at the Howard County Fairgrounds and discuss the myriad details of their hobby.
"There are no set rules," in beekeeping, said Allan Hayes, president of the Howard County Beekeepers Association. But, he said, people love to get together and share their experiences and opinions, including how much sugar to give the insects in the spring and the best type of box in which to keep them.
The beekeepers association has proven to be a vital resource for local families who enjoy the pastime, and the group has seen its membership boom in the past year. A short beekeeping course in March attracted 30 new individuals and families to the hobby - including some from Baltimore City and Baltimore and Montgomery counties. Previously, the club had 15 to 20 members.
The club will offer another short course for beginners in the spring, with an introduction from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Feb. 25. Four classes will follow in March, with a field day in April.
"We have a very dynamic and very enthusiastic group right now and were trying to continue that," said Hayes, who lives in Mount Airy and started keeping bees in 1971. Bees pollinate flowers, more than 100 types of crops and other plants. But two types of mites started plaguing honeybees in the 1980s, wiping out millions of the insects, according to Penn State University's cooperative extension department. From 1990 to 2002, one-quarter of managed honeybee colonies died, and many areas have no wild honeybee colonies left.
As a result, beekeepers have become an important resource for ecology and agriculture.
The American Beekeeping Federation estimates that there are 100,000 beekeeping operations of all sizes in the country. About 10,000 are believed to be sideline beekeepers who get a fair amount of income from bees, and 2,500 are full-time, commercial operations.
The hobby beekeepers "particularly in urban and suburban areas, fill in a lot of gaps," said Troy Fore, executive director of the federation.
Jennifer Mazur of Ellicott City heard about a need for honeybees in classes to become a Howard County master gardener.
She said she realized "I hadn't seen any honeybees in my yard. ... It's that underdog thing. I wanted to help."
Mazur and her husband, Joe, bought several groups of bees and set up three hives in their yard, providing the insects with closely aligned slats on which to build honeycombs in rectangular boxes. They monitor the bees and provide sugar water when they need it.
"It's very interesting," Joe said. "Bees have the whole complex society."
In addition to her hives, Jennifer tends hives at Mount Pleasant Farm in Woodstock with another club member. Mount Pleasant, an area for natural preservation and ecology education, is the headquarters of the Howard County Conservancy.
The level of interest in beekeeping nationally is up, although over time it "waxes and wanes," Fore said.
Locally, beekeeping clubs have proven to be a good resource for people who want to get started.
"It's not been difficult, but it's been challenging" to start keeping bees, said Lawrence Welle, an accountant from Catonsville. "There are 10 different answers to one question."
He started keeping two hives last year after the short course and found the Howard club to be more convenient than one that meets in Baltimore County. "I would not miss a meeting," Welle said. "The people here and the camaraderie are a lot of fun."
Fore said he advises new beekeepers to work with a friend or join a club, especially for the practical advice.
"You can read it in the books, and it's not the same as doing it," Fore said. With variations in geography and climate, "it's always better to have somebody who can take general knowledge and apply it to local conditions."
The Howard County course will get people started with information about bee biology, equipment, colony management, pollination and dealing with mites.
Club members meet monthly. This year, the club held a honey-gathering demonstration and a field trip to the Bee Research Laboratory at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Some members worked with school groups during farm heritage days at Mount Pleasant, and others talked about bees with visitors to the county fair in August.
"We do whatever we can to educate the public," Hayes said. "We try to talk about the importance of bees and pollination and stuff, how social insects live and act, and that they're not something to be afraid of."
The beekeeping short course will be held at the Howard County Fairgrounds Dining Hall in West Friendship. The cost is $30 a family for text and instructional materials, and $10 for club membership. Information and registration: Allan Hayes, 410-489-2835, or send e-mail to thehayes firstname.lastname@example.org.