Each year, Don Kolpack can't wait for spring.
Pollen-rich flowers begin to burst open and the hundreds of thousands of African honeybees that the Howard County beekeeper cares for busily collect nectar to help make their honey supply for the season.
But when the retired carpenter went to check on the hives he kept in a wooded area in Savage last month, they were gone.
"I thought to myself, 'Who in the world would do this?'" said Kolpack, 74, who has kept bees as a hobby for 55 years. He keeps his colonies in several Howard County locations, five of which he kept in Savage.
"Someone had taken everything. Feeders. Boxes. That was quite a shock."
Though infrequent in Maryland, hive theft is on the rise in parts of the country where bees and honey are big business. Beekeeping experts attribute the increase in part to higher honey prices resulting from a mysterious condition that has devastated bee colonies in the past couple of years.
"It makes, unfortunately, unsavory people a little bit more inclined to steal them," said Patricia Johnson, secretary of the California State Beekeepers' Association. "It's becoming an issue just keeping your bees alive, so if you've got some healthy colonies, you don't want someone else taking them away from you."
The problem has become serious enough in some parts of the country that companies are offering security devices for tracking hive movement, including some that use GPS technology and motion sensors. The 372-member California association has a Bee Theft Reward Program, offering $10,000 for information on anyone who has stolen or destroyed members' property.
The few reported thefts that have occurred in Maryland - one in 2007 and two in 2006 - have flummoxed state agriculture officials.
"It's very seldom because most people are afraid of bees, and most bees are kept in isolated places or farms," said Jerry Fischer, state apiary inspector. "They're not in locations where people can just pick them up."
Underlying the rise in hive theft is colony collapse disorder, which has been killing off honeybees nationwide, experts say. Researchers have not identified a cause of the problem, which appeared a couple of years ago when beekeepers in 24 states reported that hundreds of thousands of their bees were perishing. Some large commercial operations, which typically keep 20,000 to 30,000 colonies, reported that more than half of their populations were wiped out.
Fruit, vegetable and nut crops that rely on bees for pollination have been hurt, affecting food manufacturers. In February, Haagen-Dazs ice cream announced a $250,000 "Haagen-Dazs loves Honey Bees" campaign to help fund research of pollination and colony collapse disorder at two universities. Nearly 40 percent of the brand's ice cream flavors include ingredients that depend on bees for pollination, according to the company.
Though colony collapse disorder hasn't hit Maryland, the bee population here has been compromised in recent years by weather, Fischer said.
While commercial growers are victims of most of the thefts in California, Johnson said, even hobbyists feel the pinch when their colonies are stolen.
"That's a little added income, and in this day and age, every penny counts," she said.
Most Maryland beekeepers are hobbyists, with more than 60 percent keeping as few as two colonies, Fischer said. Despite the crisis in the bee population and the thefts, the number of registered keepers in Maryland has crept up steadily in the past four to five years.
In 1996, there were 1,000. By the end of last year, more than 1,500 beekeepers were registered here with more than 10,000 colonies.
"They just love outdoors, love nature," Fischer said of bee hobbyists. "They want to put honey in their own tea from their own hives."
Kolpack began beekeeping in 1953 when he found three hives that his father-in-law had planned to throw away. Donning work gloves and a World War I-era overcoat, Kolpack wrapped a window screen around his head and loaded the hives into the bed of his 1952 Dodge pickup.
He placed them under an apple tree, replacing the rotting boxes over the next few days. He's been keeping colonies ever since.
"At one time, I had 76 hives of bees, but it just got to be too much for me," he said. Kolpack keeps about 30 colonies these days.
For Kolpack, the thefts amounted to much more than just a material loss. He is fascinated by watching worker bees covered with bright yellow skunk cabbage pollen zip back to the hives to make food and shelter.
"They were exceptionally strong colonies of bees," he said of the stolen hives.
He keeps his colonies sheltered from the wind and paints the boxes to protect the wood. He feeds his bees a sugar-water mixture to help them produce more honey when nectar is scant.
"If you don't provide a quality home, you're not going to get any honey," he said.
His hands, worn from years of building and woodwork, moved delicately to avoid disturbing the bees when he checked on the hives he keeps in the Laurel area this month. He stopped wearing gloves years ago - the bee stings are barely noticeable now.
Kolpack said he takes about two-thirds of the honey the bees produce, leaving the rest for the hive. Each hive typically produces 50 pounds of honey each season, he said. He usually sells each pound for about $4, and each hive lasts three to four seasons, he said.
That's not to mention the other profits that can come from the hives.
"Beekeeping has a lot of extra commodities - beeswax, pollen and propolis," he said. Propolis is a substance bees use to construct hives that is sold in health stores as a traditional medicine. "And honey has the ability to heal cuts, scrapes, abrasions," he said.
Kolpack said he's out about $4,000 because of the thefts, taking into account that the colonies would have produced honey for about four seasons.
He said he's convinced that the theft of his hives wasn't a one-person job because each stands about 3 feet tall and weighs about 75 pounds. Despite his efforts, which included running a classified ad in a local shopper, he doesn't expect to find them. But he'll keep searching.
"It's like voila! - it's gone," Kolpack said. "It will set you back somewhat, but you will recover from it. It happens."