David MacDougall had a pretty good introduction to the world of beekeeping.
“My first recollection of wanting to have bees,” MacDougall recalled, “was a Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood episode where he had a beekeeper on.”
Some years later, the dream has met reality for the Silver Spring landscape architect. A few months ago, MacDougall became a bona fide beekeeper, installing a beehive—containing about 70,000 bees—in his backyard.
MacDougall is far from alone. Beekeeping is gaining popularity in Montgomery County and across Maryland, as awareness continues to grow over Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious disease which is, along with other threats like pesticides, wiping out honeybee populations everywhere and threatening all manner of agricultural crops.
A 2013 study from the Maryland Department of Agriculture found 1,872 registered beekeepers in the state, up from 1,362 four years prior.
The trend is apparent in Montgomery County, said George Meyer, a past president of the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association. Though he doesn’t have any hard data, Meyer asserted that “public interest continues to increase” in the hobby, with the association now having “a couple hundred” members.
“Beekeeping is very popular in Montgomery County,” Meyer stated in an email. “It’s one of those ‘best of times and worst of times’ [situations]. Best of times with all the new beekeepers and public interest and worst of times given the health of all of our colonies.”
To be certain, bees suffer in many quarters from a, shall we say, stinging reputation. And while it’s always better to be safe than sorry, nightmare scenarios don’t seem to come anywhere near the day-to-day real life of beekeeping.
“I’ve only been stung once,” MacDougall said. “And no one has blamed me for any bee stings. They’re very inconspicuous. I work in my backyard and they just fly around me. They don’t want anything to do with me. There’s not like some big cloud of bees swarming around.”
The risk-reward ratio also seems pretty favorable when it comes to other aspects of the hobby. Though there are some state laws associated with beekeeping, they are not excessive. State inspectors visit about two-thirds of the state’s apiaries (or areas where bee colonies are kept) each year, checking colonies for diseases and advising keepers on best practices.
As for financial costs, MacDougall said he took one class over the winter and spent a total of $500 on bees and equipment, which are available online and elsewhere. A typical starter kit, including a hive, tools, protective equipment, goes for about $200. The bees themselves may also be purchased online, with a three-pound package of bees also costing around $200, not including extras like insurance.
It doesn’t seem like an extraordinarily heavy lift on the labor end, either.
“It’s an easy addition,” MacDougall said. “It takes up a lot less space than I thought it would. You can basically do as much or as little work as you want. The bees do the work for you. And it produces a lot more honey than I thought it would.”
About 120 pounds of honey, to be exact; that’s what MacDougall expects to harvest next spring.
“That’s way beyond what I need or what I could give away to people I know,” MacDougall said. “I could probably sell what’s left over.”
The trickiest challenge, perhaps? Getting buy-in from his neighbors—and his wife.
“It was hard,” MacDougall said. “But I’ve been talking about this for a long time. I just told the neighbors about it and they were pretty open to it…Now everyone comes to me with bee questions. It’s fun. I’m their bee guy.”
Montgomery County Training:
The Montgomery County Beekeepers Association has an annual class each February that consists of 6-7 weekly lectures. The course finished with a couple of hands-on sessions in the apiary, where students are able to experience the excitement of working a hive. The classes can fill up in a week or less, so sign up for the waiting list for notification!
Other Regional Training Courses:
DC Beekeepers Alliance
Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia
BUMBA: Bowie-Upper Marlboro Beekeepers Association
University of Maryland
By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer. Read Scott’s other posts on the benefits of environmental peer pressure, birds and climate change, eco-friendly ice rinks, residential solar, and congregational rain gardens.