A new buzz over the vital role of bees

Keepers in demand to help farms

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

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Charlie Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Betsy Klinger, a beekeeper in Washington Grove, holds a frame from one of the two bee colonies she keeps next to her home.

Click here to enlarge this photo
Charlie Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Bees from Betsy Klinger’s colonies are about the enter their peak period of honey-making.

‘‘I was a bug kid.”

From when Betsy Klinger was but a toddler, she played with bugs, collected them, even tried keeping them as pets — ants, lady bugs, praying mantises.

‘‘My mother said I was near-sighted, so I had to look at things closely. So I looked at the ground a lot.”

Decades later, she found herself on the Town Council of Washington Grove, in a book club, a writer’s club, a founding member of Washington Grove’s film society.

She wanted a new hobby and for some reason, she thought of keeping bees.

She took classes with the Montgomery County Beekeepers, joined up, learned the ancient craft, shelled out a few hundred dollars for the equipment, and set up two ‘‘bee boxes” next to her house.

Suddenly, she was sensitive to patterns in the weather, she found herself thinking about her bees all the time, worrying about them.

The fascination, she says, had taken too deep of a hold.

Now 53, she recalls one particular afternoon that cinched the deal: ‘‘I was sitting there on the bench, right in front of where they come and go, and it was the summer, and the sun was shining,” she says. ‘‘So I’m watching all these little pollen-laden bees go in and out of the hive, and I could smell the honey, and I felt like a little girl again, back in the days when I was a dreamy little girl that would lie in the grass and watch the insects.”

She laughs because it’s such a far cry from what she’s come to expect after all these years later.

‘‘I live the kind of hectic life that most people in Montgomery County live. But it’s a wonderful feeling to sit there and spend some moments just watching them. I just feel like me again, like the me I used to be. It’s nice to sometimes get away from the man-made world and feel like you’re part of the real world that a lot of people like to forget that we’re a part of.”

Harvesting her first crop of honey, last summer, was a neighborhood affair that yielded 120 pounds, almost all of which she gave away to friends, neighbors and relatives — anyone that showed up on her doorstep.

‘‘So there are a lot of people around town that have Klinger honey,” she says with a certain measure of pride.

As with her 100,000 bees, and with beekeepers around the country, Klinger is poised for the busy season.

Honey is about to start its peak flow.

Bees had once been a familiar presence on her street in Washington Grove, a hive tucked into the hollow tree at the end of the street. Then came the parasitic mites that wiped the colony out. The mites hit in the mid-1980s, and Maryland was one of the first two states infected, says Jerry Fischer of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the state’s chief bee inspector.

By the early 1990s, the mites had all but wiped out feral, or wild, colonies across the country. Desperate farmers who rely on bees to pollinate their crops soon began calling to ask, ‘‘‘Where are the bees?’”

It has made kept bees quite the precious commodity and given hobbyist beekeepers a far more significant role.

This year, Maryland farmers sent 5,000 bee colonies to farmers in California, mostly for almond trees. Those bees came back on Sunday, he said, ‘‘just in time for our apples here.”

Still, only 70 percent of the crops that require pollination are getting it, he said, and those that are do not have enough bee colonies to yield as big a harvest as it should.

As colonies of bees declined, so did the state’s number of beekeepers, plummeting from 2,000 in the early 1990s to a mere 990 in 1997.

As reflected in this year’s popularity of the educational course offered by the Montgomery County Beekeepers, the 100 students requiring additional sessions, the numbers have rebounded, up to about 1,300.

The mite infestation, and a virus that the mites are now infecting the bees with, beekeeping has become much more difficult. This time around, he says, ‘‘It ain’t the same old beekeepers.”

‘‘These new beekeepers, they know now that without treating and control, they’ll lose their colonies,” he said. ‘‘They’re actually better beekeepers and are more informed than when the mites first got here.”

Klinger dealt with her hives’ bout against the mites, and expects to again. But, thinking about the years of tranquil afternoon beewatching to come, it’s a labor of love she’ll gladly endure every season.

And because bees can fly two, three, even five miles, fight off the conditioned reflex to dismiss or even kill them.

‘‘If you think about it, if you see bees anywhere in the Gaithersburg area, they could be my bees.”