Many reasons — scientific, philosophical, practical and otherwise — draw people each spring to the Carroll County Beekeepers Association's annual Beekeeping Basics class, part of Carroll Community College's Continuing Education Series.
Most seemed drawn simply because honeybees, with their highly organized communal behavior and the essential role they play in pollinating many of the plants that produce the fruits and vegetables we eat, provide humans with a tangible link to nature.
Not to mention, bees also produce honey.
"I have always been an outdoors person," said Becky Strong, of Manchester, who's taking the beekeeping course this spring.
Strong was part of the group that attended a recent Saturday morning field trip to the apiary at Hashawha Nature Center, in Westminster.
"I started gardening the couple of years ago, and I became a little bit more attuned to the environmental factor," she said. "I'm also very fascinated by the whole process of producing honey — of course, we really love honey!"
Earlier this month at the nature center on John Owings Road, Strong and several other novice beekeepers watched a series of demonstrations by instructor and veteran beekeeper Fred Sypher.
Sypher, a Westminster resident and current president of the Carroll County Beekeepers Association, showed his students the various components of a beehive and introduced them to some of the fundamentals necessary for maintaining healthy hives and extracting honey from them.
As Sypher put the top back on one of the wooden hives, he winced.
"Every time you do this, you're going to crush two or three of the girls," he said. "It'll break your heart. You never thought you were going to fall in love with the bug."
Sypher talked about the different bees that coexist within the strict, proscribed social order of an Italian honeybee hive — queens, drones and worker bees.
He similarly discussed the variety of varmints, viruses, blights and fungi that can play havoc with a bee colony.
"Beware of wax moths," he warned. "They'll make a nasty mess. You'll have to destroy the hive."
Sypher, who is retired from the private sector of the defense industry, also demonstrated how to use a smoker, a billows-like device that emits smoke that subdues the bees and make them less aggressive while you're working with the hive.
"Sometimes, the bees will 'head-butt' you, as a territorial move," he said. "But they don't want to sting you. That's terminal for a bee. They are curious, though, and they'll go up your sleeves and pants legs."
Bill and Ellen Ray, of Hampstead, are among the 52 students enrolled in Sypher's class this spring. The Rays have had bees on their farm for about three years, but have not gotten around to learning how to extract the honey.
They were particularly interested in seeing how to use a smoker.
"I wasn't using the smoker right, and Fred showed me how." Bill Ray said."I could've read 10 books on it, but it's much easier to come to something like this and have one guy show me."
Fred Sypher says he's seen "an upward trend" in backyard beekeeping.
"Mostly, it's because of all the attention the mainstream media has given to colony collapse disorder," he said, referring to a still-unexplained malady, or array of maladies, that cause worker bees to abruptly disappear from a beehive.
Explanations for the phenomenon that has destroyed honeybee colonies around the world include mites, insect diseases, environmental change-related stresses and pesticides. Others point to a combination of factors.
Sypher said the disappearance of bees is what originally led him and his wife, Darla, to become interested in bees.
"Back in 2006, we noticed that we had no honeybees in our back yard, and we wanted to find out why that was happening," said the former karate instructor, who originally studied journalism and engineering.
After attending a beekeeping workshop at the Westminster branch of the Carroll County Library, he and Darla enrolled in the same beekeeping basics course at the community college that he's now teaching.
As Sypher learned more about beekeeping, he began to realize that, "It was far more scientific than I expected, and because of that, it aroused my engineering and journalistic curiosity."
Sypher's course includes five two-hour sessions, along with the Saturday field trip to Hashawha. It covers just about everything a wanna-be beekeeper needs to know, and buy, in order to get started. Honeybee biology, seasonal bee management, swarm collecting, hive inspection, honey extraction and a primer on hive diseases are some of the topics covered.
Sypher says as both an instructor and president of the Carroll County Beekeepers Association, his principal mission is to get more people involved with beekeeping and with the association, as well as partnering novices with master beekeepers to serve as their mentors.
He says one of the most appealing aspects of beekeeping as a hobby is its flexibility.
"You can be as engaged (with the bees) as you choose to be," he said. "There are people who have bees and simply ignore them. Others take an active management role, and some are in between."
One of the objectives of the Carroll County Beekeepers Association is to teach modern beekeeping techniques, to educate the public about bees, pollination and bee products and to promote the value and use of honey, beeswax and pollination. To this end, the association hosts a variety of meetings, presentations, speakers and demonstrations throughout the year.
For a calendar of events, go to http://www.carrollcountybeekeepers.org.
For information, email info@CarrollCountyBeekeepers.org.
Association membership is $15 per year.
Meetings are 7:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at Bear Branch Nature Center/Hashawha Environmental Center, 300 John Owings Road, Westminster.
For information about the nature center, call 410-386-3560.
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