- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

It's a warm Saturday in April. The breeze is thick with the sweet scent of flowering honeysuckles. A mist of golden pollen glazes the parked cars outside the Watkins Nature Center in Upper Marlboro, and a buzz of excitement permeates the air.
Near the woods out back, master beekeeper David Morris rips open a package, exposing thousands of live honeybees. He shakes the frenzied cluster into a white box resembling a small chest of drawers, then reaches back inside the package with his bare hands to pluck out one remaining bee, this one twice the size of the others, and places it with the rest, doing it all without a single sting.
No, this isn't a taping of "Fear Factor." Mr. Morris is showing his class of 20 would-be beekeepers the safe and easy way to set up a hive.
It's only a first step for these novices, but once they take it they are on their way to a hobby shared by millions around the world who see it not only as fun, but as practical. It can be a source of income once the honey is sold, and a way to preserve and encourage what some call the key to crop supply: the busy little European honeybee, apis mellifera, or "honey carrier."
"It's really quite simple," says the lanky Mr. Morris, lifting his beekeeper's veil, a kind of safari hat with netting.
"Honeybees come packaged with a queen and a box of sugar water. You dump the bees into the hive, add the queen, and then, since they have no stores built up, give them sugar water, to keep them going until they are able to collect nectar from the flowers. Then the bees do the work."
Not all the work, of course. A novice beekeeper should count on about six to eight hours of maintenance each week, especially during the first year, says Mr. Morris, who is quick to point out that he doesn't view the hours spent with his bees as work.
"They are pleasure and a joy," he says, after the stress of his job with the Department of Defense.
Beekeeping requires no experience, and Mr. Morris will tell you it's not even necessary to take his early spring class, sponsored by the Bowie-Upper Marlboro Beekeeping Association. He does suggest picking up a book or two on the subject. There's also a nominal start-up cost of about $250, which covers the cost of the hive, a package of honeybees, a beekeeper's veil, gloves and a tool to pry open the hive.
Now is the best time to start.
"After May," Mr. Morris says, "it is really too late to introduce bees to a new hive in this area. There won't be enough time to build up the strength of the colony to make it through the winter. So start soon, or it's best to wait until next year."
Check local ordinances first. There are few restrictions to keeping bees, though cities and counties in Maryland and Virginia vary as to lot size and registering requirements.
The District does not permit beekeeping, but that shouldn't deter a prospective beekeeper from asking relatives or friends living outside the District whether they would mind a hive or two in their back yards. An avid gardener should be delighted, considering the essential contribution honeybees make to plants; they account for 80 percent of all pollination done by insects.
Gardeners can't count on feral or wild honeybees to handle pollination anymore. During the last 10 to 15 years, the numbers of wild honeybees have decreased dramatically. When was the last time you saw a honeysuckle vine or a flowering bush covered with honeybees, or crossed the yard barefoot in the summer and stepped on one foraging in a dandelion or a patch of clover?
Urbanization and pesticides have contributed to the honeybees' demise. But most importantly, two imported parasites tracheal mites, which attack the honeybee's breathing tubes, and varroa mites, which attach themselves to the bee and feed on its blood have wiped out millions of wild honeybee colonies. Bumblebees, the other type of "social" bee, seem not to have been affected by these mites.

Backyard beekeeping helps re-establish lost bee colonies and offset the natural decrease in pollination by wild honeybees. Experts swear effective pollination dramatically increases the size and quantity of flowers, fruits and vegetables in nearby gardens. It's no wonder that Martha Stewart has kept bees on her Connecticut farm for more than 25 years.
Gardening aside, the biggest draw for beekeepers involves a different type of harvest, one that yields honey. How much honey varies depending on weather, rainfall, and location and strength of a colony.
Eric Day of the Virginia Polytechnic and State University Extension Service says, 40 to 60 pounds of surplus honey honey the bees don't need for food isn't unusual for this area, though the yields are about half that the first year.
Why harvest honey when you can buy it at the grocery store? John Lugmayer, president of the Bowie-Upper Marlboro Beekeeping Association, who harvests 60 to 120 pounds annually from his two hives, insists commercial honey just isn't the same.
"It has been blended, cooked and ultra-filtered. Honey harvested directly from a hive is the way the bees made it: packed with aroma and flavor."
The flavor can be the choice of the beekeeper.
Bees collect a myriad of nectars from many different flowers, which they sock away inside the hive in cells in the comb. These hexagonally shaped cells, made of beeswax, are also used as nests for the baby bees.
"I started a new hive three weeks ago," says Mr. Lugmayer. "Already, I can see the different color nectars in the cone: greens, yellows, reds, and blacks. These are made from the pollens taken from whatever was flowering during those weeks."
Most beekeepers wait until July or August to harvest their honey, which results in a blend of the different nectars, called "wildflower" honey. However, it is possible to micromanage pollen collection. Some West Virginia beekeepers, for example, move their hives into sourwood groves when the trees are about to flower. After several weeks, limited amounts of honey, derived almost exclusively from the pollen taken from the holly trees, can be harvested.
"Holly honey is the best," says Mr. Lugmayer. "It's harder to find and more expensive but delicious."
Eating honey is also a natural way to fend off pollen allergies. The body recognizes the ingested pollen in the honey as a protein food source, not as an allergen.
In fact, honeybees are used to relieve a wide range of health problems. Mr. Lugmayer, for example, administers bee stings to his friend, Larry Dean, once or twice a week.
This isn't some bizarre magic trick or sadistic ritual; it's called "apitherapy." Mr. Dean has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that causes his immune system to attack the myelin sheath surrounding his muscles and tendons. After the bees sting Mr. Dean, his immune system directs its attention away from attacking the myelin to battling the venom. Depending on the person, increased mobility can result anywhere from immediately to in several weeks.
"I do it to myself, as well," says Mr. Lugmayer. "When my tendonitis flares up, I'll sting myself as close to the sore muscle as possible. My immune system will concentrate in the area of the sting, healing the tendonitis more quickly."

That may work well for Mr. Lugmayer, but the fear of being stung is what keeps many from pursuing the hobby. Though most experienced beekeepers agree bee stings come with the territory, they say that most stings are caused by carelessness.
"You can't train a bee," says Mr. Lugmayer. "Bees train you to work with them."
He suggests tending bees on sunny days, when they are out gathering pollen and not clustered inside the hive as on a cloudy day, and using a smoker before opening the hive.
"The smoke makes the bees think the hive is on fire. They gorge themselves to protect the honey and then leave for a while," he says. Once they believe the danger has passed, they will return to the hive and disgorge the honey back into the cells.
"Stay calm and don't swat at them," recommended Mr. Morris, who has more than 18 years of experience with bees. "Bees only sting when they think their colony is threatened."
As both beekeepers point out, stinging is a honeybee's last resort. Once the stinger is released, the honeybee will die. It is the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the colony.

To further ensure the survival of the colony, honeybees swarm. At Watkins Nature Center, Mr. Morris points to what resembles a long tangled beard, hanging from a tree limb. The beard is really thousands of squirming honeybees clinging to one another.
"Bees swarm when their colony has grown too big," explained Mr. Morris. "Then about 50 percent of a colony will pack up with their queen and take flight."
Often when a swarm is found, an experienced beekeeper will be called to capture it. Mr. Morris received such a call a few years ago. A swarm had taken up lodging on a limb near the front of the White House. The Secret Service was planning to kill the bees unless they were removed quickly.
As Mr. Morris stood on top of his car in the White House driveway, the Secret Service watched as he shook approximately 20,000 honeybees into a box.
The gun-toting White House protectors may have been impressed by his bare-handed bravery, but Mr. Morris only chuckles at the notion.
"Bees tend to be the gentlest when they swarm," he says.

So gentle in fact, that as a baby, St. Ambrose, the patron saint of beekeepers, escaped unscathed after a swarm of honeybees landed on his mouth. Legend has it that it was this event that led to his gift of "honeyed" speech, which enabled him to protect Christianity from pagan attacks in the third century.
Because St. Ambrose lived near Rome, it is likely that those bees were the ancestors of Italian honeybees. Considered extremely gentle and some of the best honey-producers, they are the first choice of local beekeepers and the most often recommended for first-time backyard beekeepers by Rick Fell, professor of entomology at Virginia Tech.
"The Italian hybrid is a gentler bee, a good survivor, resistant to mites and diseases, and adapts well to the Washington regional area," Mr. Fell says.
Michelle Ferris, who owns a small bee-supply company in northern Maryland, believes selecting bees is no different from picking a breed of dog.
"It's the personal preference of the beekeeper," she says. "A lot of people choose the Italian bees, but the Carniolan bees are popular, too. They are particularly good honey-producers."
Dark in color with broad gray bands, Carniolan bees originally from Austria and Yugoslavia produce a lot of honey because they maintain a small winter colony that requires only small stores of food.
A new strain, the Russian honeybee, recently available in the United States, is also worth a look. Touted by their marketers as more hardy and disease resistant, they may or may not measure up to their publicity.
Africanized honeybees, the so-called killer bees that reached the southern United States in the 1990s from Brazil, are not commercially available. These bees, indistinguishable to the naked eye from European honeybees, resulted when Brazilian scientists exploring ways to increase honey production in the 1950s accidentally released aggressive African queen bees that mated with more docile European strains.
Fierce in defense of their hives, the Africanized bees attack readily, chase intruders for long distances, and stay angry for a long time. Mr. Morris says any agricultural inspector who discovers them at the Port of Baltimore will kill them immediately. He says, too, that a novice beekeeper should not handle a swarm of honeybees unless the beekeeper is sure it is from his own hive, because there is a chance, though slight, that the bees could be of the Africanized type.

Whichever type of European honeybee a novice chooses, Mr. Morris encourages beginners to attend beekeepers' association meetings.
"Beekeepers are a gregarious, fun and helpful bunch," he says. "We've all had the same questions and the same concerns over the years. Beekeepers love to give advice."
But even experienced beekeepers can be stumped by their bees. As Mr. Morris talks, a pair of honeybees hovers precariously close to his head. Quickly, he moves away, beckoning the group to follow.
"We're in their flight path," he explains as the two descend once more. "They're getting oriented."
Again he moves; again they follow. Shrugging, he moves to continue the discussion in the nature center.
"What makes beekeeping so fascinating to me," he says once inside, "is that you are trying match wits with an insect."
Looking through the glass door to the active hive outside, he adds, "And you don't always win."


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