What's the Buzz? Beehives Burgeon in Baltimore Backyards
Charm City has long been known for its towering constructions of wacky hair, but now we’ve got a new buzz.
Beehives – the kind filled with honey – are popping up in backyards.
“It’s embarrassing how trendy I’m being,” beginner beekeeper Sarah Sette says.
Sette’s face lights up as she talks about her nascent hobby. Apparently, bee stings aren’t the only dangers of keeping bees. The Arcadia resident is obsessed, and she’ll be the first to tell you.
“I Google. I’m always reading. I’m buying bee gear. I’ve got a dozen blogs bookmarked. I listen to bee podcasts.”
For Sette, it started on an impulse. A three-week class on keeping bees at the Park School of Baltimore
allowed her to hit the ground running. Midway through the class, she’d ordered her bee package, a shoe-box-sized starter hive from Georgia. By the third week, the swarm arrived ready to move into their new home. The hive looks like a displaced file cabinet squatting amongst her azaleas.
For the thrill -- and the environment
Sette is not alone in her passion.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture has registered 1,751 beekeepers, with roughly under 12,000 colonies in 1,800 locations. According to state apiarist Jerry Fischer, Baltimore alone was home to about 29 registered beekeepers keeping more than 100 colonies in 45 locations as of February.
Beekeepers are part thrill-seekers, part environmentalists. Concerned with ecology and sustainability, gardeners often find beekeeping the obvious next step. Keeping the pollinators results in more fruit, vegetables and flowers in your garden.
Most shrug off the most obvious question: What about stings?
Generally, honeybees are not aggressive unless the hive is being threatened. Most apiarists shrug off the risk. Those that have been stung cite the tradeoff: bee stings are known to treat a host of serious illnesses
Another benefit is that it connects them to other rebellious-but-earthy folks — and it’s not as high maintenance as keeping chickens. Beekeepers don’t make money off the hobby and mostly give the honey away as gifts. They profit by acquiring a quirky hobby that gives them an aura of mystique.
“People look at you like you’re totally odd,” says Roland Park beekeeper David Klassen. His hazel eyes crinkle as he smiles.
“It’s far and away the most interesting thing I’ve done in the last year or so. First thing I do after work is go down and check on the bees. It’s a nice evening activity.”
Catching more fruit with honey
Dennis Miller of Miller Bee Supply says he’s noticed a recent rise in the number of beekeepers in the area.
“Lord, yeah. A whole lotta people are buying equipment,” he drawls.
Though sustaining a bee colony can be challenging, getting started isn’t.
Buying the necessary supplies to start a hive at Middle River’s Miller Bee Supply
will run about $200 for the hive, suit, had, veil and gloves. A starter colony of Italian bees costs $77.
Beekeepers must register with the Maryland Department of Agriculture within thirty days of starting a hive. Beekeepers can’t cultivate more than one hive or swarm for every 2,500 square feet of land and hives must not become a nuisance to the general public.
There’s also the Maryland State Beekeepers Association Inc.
, which can hook interested beginners up with mentors and resources, monthly meetings and a monthly newsletter, Hive Tool
Tyros Ann and David Klassen have been keeping bees since March. They, too, took the course at the Park School “on a whim”—something to do in the evenings. It was, Ann laughs, a “choice between beekeeping and cooking class.”
Now, they’re hooked. Leaning back in a light-blue cotton shirt, David taps the table with his open hand: “Once you do it, it’s hard to imagine not doing it.”
The Klassens, perched on a hill in Roland Park, have discovered a number of unexpected joys in keeping bees. First of all, they say it’s easy to do.
Also, an increase in pollinators means they’ve found that their apple trees are bearing more fruit than ever before. And they’ve tapped into a “wacky little network,” almost, they say, like joining a “secret society, a vaguely subversive activity.”
“It connects you, like joining an interest group. I live in the city; I compost, I garden, and this connects you to a green community. And it’s like getting another pet --10,000 little pets.”
Four-year veteran Susan Brennan would agree: she most enjoys connecting with other enthusiasts. A member of the Central Maryland Beekeepers’ Association
, she has also noticed a difference in her garden.
“I have more berries on my hollies, my neighbors have more fruit on their fruit trees.”
She shows off her strawberries clustered outside her Towson home. They are bigger than ever this year. Originally, Brennan started with one colony and expanded to two the following year.
Beekeeping or bungee jumping?
She says the first year for all beginners is a scramble to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to keep a complex system alive throughout the year -- including Baltimore’s fantastically mild winter this year. The bees simply ate through all the food they’d stored.
“It was really a bummer.”
Indeed, there are other cautions. There’s generally no honey for a year as the bees build the comb, and there are more challenges facing bees these days than ever before. Pesticides, herbicides, mites and diseases threaten and there’s the risk of colony collapse.
Often hives simply don’t make it through the winter. “Everybody wants to think that won’t happen to them,” Sette says.
And some beekeepers get stung more than others. There was one day when Brennan was stung three times. In fact, every member of her family has been stung once.
Still, Brennan admits, there’s nothing she’d do differently. “I could sit for hours and watch them.” She leans back, stretching.
Keeping bees may not be for everybody, but it seems to be addictive. As Sette jokes, “I’m not a bungee jumper. I don’t ride motorcycles. But when you’ve got the gloves on and you’re dealing with 10,000 bees, you feel kind of badass.”
Rachel Wilkinson is an avid traveler and Charm City resident who lives in Arcadia. She teaches English at Loyola Blakefield High School and at UMBC.
Dave Klassen tends to his bees at his Roland Park home.
All photographs by STEVE RUARK