What’s all the buzz about?
Southern Maryland a haven for beekeeping
“OK, girls, we’re coming in,” Jerry Worrell of Dunkirk said one hot July morning as he inspected his beehives, an activity he does one or more times a week.
Worrell has been beekeeping since 1972, at the urging of his real estate agent, who provided him with his first colony.
“It was a lot easier then,” he said. “We didn’t have all the pests that we have today. We’ve got tracheal mites, we’ve got varroa mites, we’ve got hive beetles, you name it. It’s a lot harder to keep bees when you have to spend more time
doing inspections for the health of your colony.”
Worrell is one of the founding members of the Association of Southern Maryland Beekeepers, an organization that provides education, support and community for the region’s growing number of beekeepers. He said interest in beekeeping has grown substantially over the past couple of decades.
Worrell said he does not wear protective gear, including masks and gloves, around his bees.
“I only wear a veil if it’s absolutely necessary,” he said. “This way, you’re much more careful with the bees. With gloves, you can’t feel anything through them, you don’t know if there’s anything on your hand, and if there is a bee, and you squeeze and crush her, she’s going to set off a pheromone alarm and get all the others to fight.”
Worrell said he relies on the effects of his bee smoker to keep the bees distracted while he inspects the hives.
“Liberal use of smoke takes care of a lot of problems,” he said.
The smoke apparently causes bees to fear there may be a fire approaching, and so they consume honey in preparation for possibly fleeing the hive, distending their abdomens and making it more difficult to sting, according to Worrell.
“Having a full honey stomach means they can’t extend their stingers,” he said.
Worker bees only live about six weeks, Worrell said, so the bees do not have enough time to get used to his visits.
“The first three weeks, they haven’t got their wings. Well, they’ve got their wings, but they haven’t got their flying license yet,” he said. “Then they get three weeks of flight, and then they die. The bees that you get in the spring are not going to be the same ones you have in the fall.”
This does result in Worrell’s getting stung from time to time, but he said that is one of the risks in beekeeping. Repeated stings over the years have allowed him to build up a resistance to their venom, he said.
“If you can’t get stung, you don’t belong in beekeeping,” Worrell said.
This year has been an especially difficult one for honey harvests, he said.
“With all the rain we had [in the spring], crocus and holly and a couple of the others were in bloom when we had all that rain during the middle of the day. And guess what? Bees don’t fly in the rain,” Worrell said. “Not only must we know what’s going on in the hive, we have to know about the locality.”
He said that the landscaping at nearby Dunkirk Marketplace included linden trees. “Linden trees bloom after crocus and holly. We had a fairly dry period there, and so that’s why I was able to get some honey at all. A lot of people say they got almost no honey this year because of all the rain.”
He said that in a good year, he expects to harvest approximately 60 to 70 pounds of honey. He also uses the beeswax to make candles. But Worrell said he doesn’t do it for the money.
“I do it because I really just like bees,” he said.
Gene Brandi, president of the American Beekeeping Federation, said it is difficult to know exactly how many beekeepers there are in the United States, “but from the rapidly growing membership of local, state and national beekeeping organizations, it is clear that beekeeping has become a more popular pursuit in recent years.” He said the most frequent estimates are approximately 250,000 beekeepers nationwide.
He said honeybees are facing a number of challenges, from pesticides, disease and parasites, but the loss of bees due to Colony Collapse Disorder, the little-understood condition in which the majority of workers leave an otherwise seemingly healthy hive, has brought the plight of honeybees to the forefront of the public consciousness and renewed interest in beekeeping throughout the country.
“It is important for the thousands of new beekeepers to learn as much as they can in order for them to keep their bees alive and healthy without jeopardizing the health of other bees in the area,” Brandi said. “For example, they need to learn about bee disease identification, varroa mite control, and whether or not it is necessary to feed their bee hives in order to avoid starvation.”
In 2016, the ABF established a complimentary membership program for new beekeepers, and since February its membership has more than quadrupled, Brandi said.
“Those with complimentary memberships receive our monthly E-Buzz electronic newsletter, have access to the webinars we hold twice each month, and can also access the archived webinars on our website that have been presented over the past several years,” he said. “It is our hope that through the educational opportunities available through these means, the ABF can help these new beekeepers become better beekeepers.” Cracking the code Lusby resident Mike Freas is one of the many newcomers to beekeeping.
“It’s an art form, that’s for certain. One I haven’t mastered,” Freas said,
laughing. “I like it because it’s something different that not many people do.”
Freas, an active-duty Navy officer, said beekeeping is something he’s always been interested in, but only seriously considered it last year.
“I wanted something else to learn, and I thought it would be pretty cool,” he said.
Freas said he and his wife attended a meeting of the Association of Southern Maryland Beekeepers in May, where he met Greg Carey, an experienced beekeeper, who invited Freas and his family to come see his hives.
“I was pretty much sold after he gave us some honey from last year,” Freas said.
Carey “loaned” the Freas family two of his hives, as well as some beekeeping gear.
“I’ll work the bees through the summer and then the winter. Hopefully they’ll survive and then next spring, hopefully we won’t have a rainy May, and we can get some honey,” Freas said. “I don’t know if I would say I’m a successful beekeeper, but my bees aren’t dead.”
He said he has been reading books on beekeeping and watching videos, but working with an actual hive is more challenging.
“It’s still a little unnerving when you’re standing in a hive with 10,000 bees,” Freas said.
He said there have been a number of challenges he didn’t expect.
“One of the hives, the queen wasn’t laying. We couldn’t find the queen, and there was no brood, no babies in the hive,” Freas said. “So we took a frame of baby bees, a brood, from the first hive, brushed all the bees off, and put it in the second hive.”
He said that if there is no queen, the workers will grow larvae into queen bees, by feeding them royal jelly.
“Bees are pretty fascinating. Most people — I’d say pretty much anybody who doesn’t either garden or work bees — have no clue how those little guys, or gals, work from sunup to sunset, and they literally work themselves to death,” Freas said. “Learning the science behind what goes on in a hive and how they communicate, it’s really cool.”
Worker bees, like the egg-laying queen bees, are all female. The male bees, or drones, serve no purpose in the hive other than to mate with the queen.
“In the fall, they’re all either killed or escorted out of the hive, and die,” Freas said.
He said the bees have been great for his garden.
“I’ve seen a couple honeybees — they could be ours, they could be from somewhere else — but I’ve seen several bees on our pepper plants, and they seem to be doing pretty good,” Freas said.
Beyond honey, he said the bees bring a value to his household just by being there.
“I go out there every day after work, and several times on the weekend,
and just stand there and watch the bees and see what they’re doing.”
Freas said that when he started, he went out and purchased leather gloves and a jacket with a veil, but he doesn’t use most of the equipment now.
“It protects you, but it does make you clumsy,” he said. “It’s hard to grab things and if you drop a frame of bees, it tends to make them unhappy. So I stopped wearing the gloves, I think I wore them maybe once or twice. I’ve been stung just twice. So far.” She just wings it For Victoria Falcon of Lexington Park, there’s no question of whether or not to suit up when she checks her beehives.
“I suit up head to toe, because I’m allergic to bees,” Falcon said one Saturday morning as she prepared to extract honey from frames. “I’m not anaphylactic, but I swell up like a grapefruit if I get stung. I know these guys who have been in it for years and years and years say, ‘The more you get stung, the less allergic you are,’ but I’d rather get stung two or three times a year than 50 times a year.”
Falcon said she feels more confident working around the bees when she is fully suited up.
“It’s hot, they’re cranky, they’re crowded, they react to the weather like we do, so they’re not happy to see us,” she said.
Given her allergy, one might wonder why Falcon became involved in beekeeping. To answer that question, Falcon pointed to her son, Micah. She said that when Micah was 12, he developed an interest in honeybees.
“When we moved down here, he said, ‘Can we have some bees?’” Falcon recalled. “For a 12-yearold to be so interested in bees we thought was great, so we said, ‘sure.’”
She said that after three or four years, Micah lost interest.
“He was in high school, he started getting interested in cars. He didn’t have a lot of luck” with beekeeping, she said. “New beekeepers have a lot of issues, and he ran into some of those issues, and he got frustrated. So he kind of gave up.”
Falcon said they went for a year without bees, but she found she missed having them around.
“We’d also invested in all this equipment, so I thought, I’ll try it,” she said.
Falcon said her first year was a challenge.
“I had about every problem you can imagine,” she said. “I had laying workers, I had swarms, gosh, I had all sorts of issues. What I didn’t have was honey.”
She said she learned of classes offered through the Association of Southern Maryland Beekeepers and decided to take one.
“I learned a lot, but I found that the more I learn about bees, the more there is to learn,” Falcon said.
She is now in her fifth year of beekeeping. This spring, however, she discovered she lost both of her hives, most likely due to beetle infestation, she suspects, and had to start over.
Falcon now maintains three hives, which she said is the optimal number for her.
“I don’t ever want more than three,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of work, in a hot suit in a hot time of year. And if you don’t do the work, they die. You really have to be committed to taking care of your bees. You can’t just have bees, you really have to keep bees.”
Falcon said that bee hives need to be inspected weekly from spring to fall.
“You need to make sure the queens are viable, to make sure you’ve got brood coming, to make sure they have stores, to make sure they’re not ready to swarm,” she said. “There are so many things. The more I learn, the more I find out what I don’t know.”
Falcon said some beekeepers keep very meticulous notes and measurements of their hives, but not her.
“I just wing it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s just one of the many different styles of the hobby,” she said. He’s the ‘bee whisperer’ In rural Indian Head, Stefano Briguglio and his partners Josh Calo and Kypriana Daniels operate what Briguglio said is the only commercial beekeeping and removal service in Southern Maryland, Azure B Apiaries.
“We’re all passionate about what we do, and we’d like to work for ourselves, and do something a little bit different,” Briguglio said.
Briguglio worked in veterinary practice, but also had an interest in organic agriculture.
“Beekeeping is kind of in line with both of those,” Briguglio said.
He said he started around 2003 as a hobbyist with one hive.
“One turned into three, three turned into five,” he said. “I was learning the entire time, learning how to keep bees alive.”
Briguglio founded Azure B Apiaries about seven years ago to turn his hobby into a business.
With more than 40 hives, the focus at Azure B Apiaries is not on honey production so much as it is on honeybee colony removal, both residential and commercial, pollination services, colony inspections, bee sales, equipment sales and education.
While they do produce honey from the hives, most of it is for personal use rather than for sale.
“Here and there, we will retail honey,” Briguglio said. “But primarily, we want to harvest honey and not pay for honey, and sustain ourselves with our crop. If we have a surplus, we will sell honey … but it’s not our focus.”
In addition to honey itself, they also use honey to make tinctures, fermented tea and mead, Calo said.
Beeswax is also a useful byproduct of the hives, Briguglio said. “It takes 8 pounds of honey to make 1 pound of beeswax,” Briguglio said.
The focus for Azure B Apiaries is on organic, chemical-free beekeeping.
“We try to take as much of a hands-off approach as possible,” Briguglio said. “We do supplement, feed them as needed, but we try to give them every opportunity to take care of themselves. We want bees that are hardy and able to thrive unassisted. That’s huge for us.”
Calo said they use a “natural, respectful beekeeping model. We don’t want to say our system, what we’re doing, is the gold standard, but it works for us,” he said.
“We want to help people be successful in beekeeping,” Briguglio said. “We want people to be happy and enjoy their beekeeping.”
Briguglio said they will come out and do colony inspections for beekeepers. “We come and do onsite mentoring,” he said. “We’ll look through your hive and make recommendations. A lot of time we can tell a lot about the health, the strength of the hive just by doing observations.”
Calo and then Daniels became involved with beekeeping two years ago. Calo said he began developing an interest in keeping bees naturally, but didn’t know where to begin.
“I tracked down Stefano who was offering these classes. He was barefoot, deep in a hive, with bees flying everywhere, and I thought, ‘That’s the guy I want to learn how to keep bees from,’” Calo said.
Calo learned beekeeping from Briguglio and describes Briguglio as the “bee whisperer.”
Daniels said she has long had an interest in bees.
“I would read books on bees, not just the environmental stuff, but the philosophy of how the hive is run, the queen, it’s almost like a social structure and how interconnected they are,” Daniels said. “After I saw them [Calo and Briguglio] in the bee hive, I wanted to be involved.”
Calo said they want to expand Azure B Apiaries, but in a way that retains the business’ focus on sustainability and the environment.
“If we’re going to do something that generates revenue, let’s do it in a way that has a systemic impact positively on the environment, and doing something that we enjoy and are passionate about,” Calo said.
Above, Jerry Worrell of Dunkirk uses a smoker, a device filled with burning paper, which blows smoke to help pacify the bees while he checks on one of his hives. Below, Victoria Falcon of Lexington Park slices the caps off honeycombs from her beehives in preparation for honey extraction.
Stefano Briguglio of Azure B Apiaries in Indian Head examines one of his hives.
Bees are busy at work in one of Dunkirk beekeeper Jerry Worrell’s hives.
Micah Falcon of Lexington Park churns the honey extractor.