A Honey of a Pastime

One of the surprising developments of the coronavirus pandemic is the growing number of committed beekeepers in Montgomery County. A beekeeper, or apiarist, is a person who keeps honey bees in beehives. Their backyards become “beeyards,” also called apiaries. Guy Semmes of Potomac, who founded Hopkins Imported Construction, relays that the virus has been a boon to his sales of honey because, “Now people are more interested in buying local, natural, raw and unprocessed food.” He also finds that people who have allergies or throat problems are buying more natural honey because, “Honey helps to ease their symptoms.”

Montgomery County Beekeepers Association (MCBA) is a non-profit club that trains new beekeepers and provides continuing education for its members. They currently have 575 members, a number they say has been growing steadily in recent years. In addition to honey bees there are 434 species of native bees in Maryland, 200 of them in Montgomery County, but it is only the honey bees who produce harvestable honey. Interesting fact, all bees collect nectar from flowers and most turn it into honey but only in tiny amounts. Only honey bee colonies produce and store copious volumes of honey which is their food supply for winter. They produce about twice as much honey as the colony needs and beekeepers steal some of the excess. Other bee colonies die when the weather turns cold.

So who are these people in the funny-looking white hats with veils and what is it exactly that a beekeeper does? Beekeepers provide shelter (beehives), health care (pest removal), and sometimes food to their bees, but the bees are free to come and go as desired. This involves lots of effort during certain times of the year, especially in the spring. This is the season that beekeepers examine the winter losses in their apiaries and supplement the food in the hive by feeding the honey bees sugar-water, placing new hives, replacing the queens if necessary, starting pest control and monitoring the production of the bees.

The majority of the members of MCBA are hobbyist beekeepers who keep ten or fewer hives at their residences. A few members have larger operations and offer pollination services to farms. Many members sell or give honey as gifts, along with soaps, lotions, and other products of the hives. Bill Conway, a beekeeper in Potomac, who keeps his three hives in his 4-acre backyard, notes that rarely does he find honey in other locations that tastes as good as the honey produced in this area.

Beekeepers relate that one of the fascinating benefits of their hobby is that they are always learning. Maureen Jais-Mick of Bethesda teaches courses through the MCBA. “Through continuing education you can learn so much,” she says. “This is a major part of what the association does, and this winter we are going around to beekeepers and taking thermal images of their hives so owners can learn if it's necessary to add food for the honey bees to survive in the winter months.“

Larry Brown of Potomac finds that beekeeping requires, “One hundred-percent focus of your mind. I find it's very therapeutic. There are so many facets to it. I am more observant of my property, I pay more attention to my bees and hive." He adds, “I perceive being a beekeeper for the rest of my life.” 

Bill Conway concurs, “I find beekeeping endlessly interesting and I get much more out of beekeeping than I put into it.”

Brown, who runs a real estate investment company, has made beekeeping a family affair. He admits that in the beginning it took some convincing to get his wife and two daughters to support his idea of becoming a beekeeper. He promised that if there where any issues with children, dogs or neighbors he wouldn't start his hobby. But not only did the family members jump on board, they have sold so much honey that they donate their earnings to a non-profit called “Black Girls Code.”

Another bonus to the learning aspect of beekeeping is meeting new people. According to Semmes, “When I started out I had no idea of what type of people I'd meet but I have met so many interesting beekeepers, including scientists who work at the National Institutes of Health and other locations.” Brown notes, “Montgomery County has some of the largest number of hobbyists in the country, and the people here are very welcoming, knowledgeable and always willing to help.” He adds, “It was very humbling for me to realize how little I know and that there is the opportunity to learn about different cultures and different beekeeping methods around the world.” 

Although most local beekeepers keep their hives in their yards, Phil Frank of Bethesda had a different idea. A journalist and filmmaker, he produced, wrote and directed a 60-minute program for National Geographic International about mass animal die-offs, which included bees. That led him to become an enthusiastic beekeeper, building his first hive on his back deck where he now has 15 hives. He also became MCBA’s webmaster, greatly expanding its offerings to become a resource for teaching, connecting and membership enrollment.

Later, while visiting the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he discovered their glass-walled observation hive. There he was able to show his wife Vivian all that he had learned about the types of honey bees and their roles in the hive and producing honey. He pointed out the eggs, larvae and even the queen bee. He went home, researched how to build an observation hive, and taught himself woodworking, cutting glass and other skills necessary to construct the hive. The finished product was a glass observational hive in his kitchen where more than 4,000 honey bees live. They come in and out of his house through a clear tube. His goal is, “To show other non-beekeepers what I get to see when I put on my bee suit.” A video of Frank’s kitchen hive can be viewed on his website FrankTV.net.

Pre-COVID-19 Frank used his see-through beehive to teach local first-graders about honey bees. He set up 7 different stations for the children, including a honey tasting section, a station to touch wax comb and other products from the hive, a chance to handle beekeeping tools and to try on a bee suit. One instructional goal was to guide them in identifying a colony’s one queen bee, camouflaged in a sea of worker bees.

Pam Hepp, a Bethesda beekeeper and the president of the MCBA, had her interest in beekeeping sparked when she traveled to Greece to visit her husband’s family and noticed all the blue boxes by the side of the road. She learned that those blue boxes were where people kept their bees and used their fresh honey in many recipes, including baklava. She took the short MCBA course and was hooked. She agrees with her fellow beekeepers that she is always learning from her beekeeping pastime. One takeaway was her amazement that the more you learn, the more easily you will see the bees’ organized structure and controlled system to produce honey, “They are so much more than just bugs,” she notes.

If you are interested in seeing what is involved in beekeeping and don't know the difference between a honey bee, a yellowjacket or a hornet, go to The Montgomery County Beekeepers Association website to learn more. www.montgomerycountybeekeepers.com.

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