Southern Maryland’s Secret Life of Bees
Story by: Barbara Elizabeth Graf Photography by: August Selckmann
Reprinted from Summer 2009
Answering her wake-up call as the sun rises each summer morning, a honey bee makes her way to the front entrance of the hive and takes flight through the dappled sunlight. Although this honey bee will live for only six weeks during the colony’s busy summer season, she will perform many tasks — from hive “housekeeping” and feeding developing bees, to attending the queen bee and finally, during the last weeks of her life, she will forage for nectar, water, pollen and resin from trees — fully illustrating the well known phrase “busy as a bee.”
While this honey bee and thousands of her sister worker bees are busy each summer day foraging nectar from millions of blossoms up to a three-mile radius outside of the hive, the colony’s one and only queen bee is equally busy inside the hive, where she is laying 800 to 1,500 eggs that will generate more honey bees during this most productive time of year. By returning to the hive with fresh nectar, which the bees then process into honey, the worker bees will ensure that not only the queen and her offspring remain well nourished during the busy summer months, but also that the hive will survive the winter when nectar is no longer available. It is the surplus of honey that the bees store up for winter that has held man’s fascination with the honey bee from prehistoric times to present.
Evidence of man’s earliest interactions with the honey bee dates back to late Paleolithic times (10,000 to 15,000 years ago) as discovered in a cave painting that depicts early Spaniards poised on long vines gathering honey among numerous flying bees at Cuevas de la Arana (Spider Caves) near Valencia, Spain. The earliest of civilizations, such as the ancient Egyptians, wrote about bees and honey in their literature, introduced the honey bee as a symbol for royalty, and required honey in their religious rites. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs include symbols not only for the honey bee and honey, but also for the practice of beekeeping, suggesting that the Ancient Egyptians were the first to manage the honey bee. Throughout the centuries, honey has been used as a form of currency, touted as medicine, praised as the “nectar of the gods,” and inspired myth and folklore.
Honey bees, in addition to gathering nectar to produce desirable honey, play a second vital role in their relationship with humans — as a pollinator of crops. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, about one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants and the honey bee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination. In fact, the 90 flowering plants that honey bees pollinate include some of the most flavorful and nutritious fruits, nuts and vegetables of the American diet, such as apples, peaches, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, almonds, asparagus, broccoli, squash, melons and cucumbers, to name a few.
Troubled Honey Bees
It is unfortunate that the long-cherished honey bee is facing stresses that have caused significant losses in the number of wild colonies and the number of domesticated honey bees kept by commercial beekeepers as well as honey bees that are loved by hobbyists in their own backyards. Overall, urbanization, pesticides and parasitic mites have contributed to failing honey bee colonies and more recently the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been applied to hives where quite often the bees have seemingly vanished without a trace.
Here in Southern Maryland, where the vast majority of honey bees are kept by hobbyists, significant losses have been reported as well. After feeding their hives sugar-water and specially prepared “candy” throughout this past winter, as well as treating for parasitic mites, many beekeepers, who are members of the Association of Southern Maryland Beekeepers, reported dead or abandoned hives as a delayed spring arrived.
“I lost 18 out of 24 hives in Charles County,” said Karen Cooksey, president of the association, reporting the largest number of lost colonies. Other beekeepers throughout Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties who maintain fewer hives reported losing up to half of their colonies. A fortunate few managed to successfully reach the expected busy spring and summer seasons without losses.
Beekeeper Greg Ferris has made some observations during the years of keeping honey bees for his apitherapy business. These observations have led Ferris to theorize and draw conclusions that may help local beekeepers reduce honey bee stress and limit losses.
At a gathering of the beekeeper association members, Ferris spoke of the importance of communication among Southern Maryland beekeepers. “Beekeeping is not an individual thing anymore. Twentieth-century beekeeping no longer applies in the 21st century. The transference of information between beekeepers is more important than ever,” he said, before beginning a discussion that included his own term for a new bee disease, “toxic comb syndrome,” as a contributor to CCD. Ferris explained toxic comb syndrome as the result of an accumulation of toxins from viruses transmitted by parasitic mites and environmental pesticides in the wax comb that encases developing honey bees.
As a new honey bee emerges from a cell in the honeycomb, it leaves behind these toxins, which are then transmitted from generation to generation of newly born honey bees.
“Every disease the bee has in its system is now in the (honeycomb) cell,” said Ferris, who concluded his toxic comb syndrome discussion by suggesting a new hive hygiene practice to remedy the situation. By exchanging 30 percent of the material known as foundation upon which the bees build wax comb each year, the beekeeper will be better able to manage the levels of toxins in the comb, thus reducing the negative effects on the honey bees, according to Ferris.
Although this technique will add further expense and hardship to beekeeping, Southern Maryland beekeepers, for the most part, remain undaunted. The majority of the association’s members who experienced losses will continue beekeeping by purchasing and raising more honey bees this season.
Construction superintendent Steve Norris of Lusby added two new colonies to his Charles County apiary, giving him a count of seven hives in his second season of beekeeping. Norris took an instructive beekeeping course through the region’s beekeepers association in 2008 when he decided to bring bees to his uncle’s 200-acre farm to benefit the cucumbers, melons, squash and other plants he grows there.
While recently inspecting his two new hives with Cooksey, Norris was pleased to find they are healthy and thriving. “To tell you the truth, I got the bees to help the gardens, but now I really like fooling with them,” he said. “Sometimes I take a chair down there and just watch them for an hour.”
Likewise, veteran beekeeper Anne Brown of St. Leonard enjoys her bees so much that she talks to them while working in and around her four hives, giving compliments and sometimes instructions to keep them out of harm’s way. Brown became fascinated with honey bees after reading lengthy excerpts from Sue Hubbell’s “A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them” that had been reprinted in New Yorker magazine while she was living in a high-rise building in Hong Kong about 20 years ago.
She specifically remembers Hubbell’s opening sentence: “For a long, long time — for nearly forty years — I never had any bees. I can’t think of why.” Returning to the United States a year later, Brown began beekeeping and has continued to keep bees for the past 19 years.
“Of course I’m disappointed when a hive weakens for some unknown reason and succumbs to wax moths, but each time that there’s a good year, it obliterates the poor ones. It’s a continual learning experience,” said Brown, whose four hives are thriving this summer. “I believe people are attracted to beekeeping as a hobby for one of two reasons — either they want the ultimate exercise in management, or they want to study the ultimate animal. And everyone wants the honey. After you’ve bottled your first jar, you’re hooked for life. Now, even if I wanted to stop, my friends wouldn’t let me.”•
Five Ways to Help Save Honey Bees
1. Eat more honey and buy it from Southern Maryland beekeepers. Not only will you reap the many health benefits of eating local honey, such as reportedly reducing allergy symptoms, but by supporting your local beekeepers, you will also help to keep them in business, which will in turn help to increase the numbers of honey bees.
2. Become a backyard beekeeper. If you have a hankering to commune with nature in her greatest glory, consider keeping a hive or two. Contact the Association of Southern Maryland Beekeepers at gworrell.freeyellow.com/asmb.html and plan to attend a meeting to find out more about becoming a hobbyist beekeeper.
3. Save a swarm. Don’t be alarmed when you see a swarm of bees. Instead, call your local sheriff’s office, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, or the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension offices — all offices keep listings of beekeepers who are available to capture a swarm.
4. Buy organic foods. Foods that are certified organic contain no pesticides. This practice helps to keep honey bees healthier and therefore more productive, ensuring continued growth of colonies.
5. Plant a bee garden and don’t use pesticides. Select from a wide array of plants that attract honey bees, including flowering annuals, perennials, herbs, shrubs, fruits, vegetables and trees. Consult a local nursery to find native plants that will thrive and remember the greater the diversity of plants, the more bees that will be nourished and supported.
To find out more about helping the honey bee, go to the University of Maryland Extension Service at extension.umd.edu/mredc/specialty-modules/
Make life sweeter this summer by adding a touch of honey to some of your favorite foods and beverages. Put a teaspoonful of honey into your iced tea or swirl a tablespoon of honey into a bowl of softened vanilla ice cream. Make honey butter by whipping a cup of honey into two sticks of softened butter. Spread on hot bread or rolls at dinnertime. Whisk together one-quarter cup of honey with one-quarter cup of Dijon mustard and one-half cup of mayonnaise and chill to make a tangy, honey-mustard dressing for raw vegetables.
Enjoy the flavor of local honey, which may be purchased at farmers’ markets throughout Southern Maryland. For a listing of Southern Maryland apiaries that produce local honey, visit So. Maryland, So Good at www.somarylandsogood.com. Click on “So. Maryland, So Good Farm Guide.” Under the “Find a product” link, search for “bees, bee products, pollination.”
To create a tantalizing new dessert cake made with honey, follow the recipe below from the National Honey Board:
1/2 cup strong coffee
1 cup honey
1 Tbsp brandy, optional
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp cloves
Combine coffee, honey and brandy; mix well. Beat eggs in mixing bowl. Add oil and brown sugar. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and spices; mix well. Add flour mixture and honey mixture alternately to egg mixture. Pour batter into greased 9-inch square pan. Bake at 300°F for 55 to 60 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched. Makes 12 servings. F