NORTH POTOMAC – The wind blows on a late summer’s Friday afternoon, the temperature reads 84 degrees and
Barry Thompson, a North Potomac resident comments on how beautiful the day is as he steps out of his red Jeep and begins to put on his white protective bee jacket.
The title “Sherriff Beekeeper” is written on a fake, gold badge on the left side of his chest. He is on his way to check on this honeybees’ food supply to ensure they are storing enough honey for the upcoming winter.
A master beekeeper is someone who passed a four-part test about bees by the Eastern Apicultural Society.
“We’re not perfect by any means but we got it down packed,” he said when referring to the test.
He has been keeping bees since 1954 because he has a fascination with them.
However, he’s had problems lately keeping up his supply of bees.
This year, he has 75 hives, down from the 125 hives he had a couple years ago.
Meanwhile, the number of hives in the U.S. decreased from about 5 million colonies in the 1970s to about 2.5 million today.
A hive typically contains 20,000 to 30,000 bees during the winter and 60,000 to 80,000 in the summer. On average, the queen bee lays between 1,000 to 2,000 eggs per day.
Beekeeping changed over the years because of the invasion of mites, according to Thompson.
The varroa mite, which came to Maryland in 1979, destroyed many hives.
“This was a shock to American beekeeping,” said Thompson. “The varroa is a real beast.”
He explained the varroa mite weakens bees to the point they are no longer strong contributors to their colonies. Those bees may die once they are infected.
“If we can best the varroa mite, we’ll be doing much, much better,” said Thompson.
Beekeepers have attempted to build back the number of bees every year by splitting their hives and buying new queens to reproduce more rapidly.
According to Tim McMahon, the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association president, beekeepers can recuperate their losses.
“You can make up your losses. Say you have three hives that die, you can replace them by purchasing bees and queens,” said McMahon. “Last winter, I went in with 13 and now I have 16.”
Before the mites caused issues for the bees and farmers, it didn’t take beekeepers as much maintenance.
McMahon said he uses integrated pest management when dealing with varroa mites.
That method includes a combination of environmentally sensitive approaches to manage pests, such as using screen bottom boards in hives so the varroa mites cannot climb back up to the bees again if they fall off.
McMahon only uses pesticides as his last resort.
“I got tired of my bees dying every year,” McMahon said. “This year is better than past years because I decided to go green.”
The Wheaton resident has kept bees for eight years, including seven hives at his home. He said he has about 40,000 bees per hive.
Although he said the varroa mites are the biggest challenge beekeepers face, he said he worries about the bees having enough sources for food.
“There’s less sufficient plants for the bees to collect nectar from, it’s getting worse every year,” McMahon said.
Urbanization forces the bees to find food at further distances due to the lesser amount of plants and flowers. Researchers Shalene Jha from the University of Texas at Austin and Claire Kremen from the University of California at Berkeley suggest raising native plants to the area could improve nesting areas for bees.
He advises people to plant as much as possible to ensure the bees are able to get an adequate amount of food.
“One plant is not enough to attract bees. You need a 4-foot section full of plants to make a difference,” he said.
Thompson learned the bulk of his knowledge from his mentors, although he began this hobby with his father.
“When I was a teenager, a man who kept bees took me under his wing for a few years and he taught me most of what I know now,” said Thompson.
Thompson himself now mentors young beekeepers through the County Beekeepers Association’s Introduction to Beekeeping class.
He said about 50 percent of those who take the class continue beekeeping.
Thompson stressed how important it is for older beekeepers to teach younger keepers the tricks to keeping bees.
“Mentoring is terribly important, and a lot of fun,” he said.
On Sept. 18, Thompson mentored a couple from his beekeeping class and reminded them about the importance of feeding bees significant amounts of sugar water in autumn to ensure they do not starve in the winter.
“They were using pint jars but they needed to be using gallon jars,” said Thompson. “We only have about six weeks until winter to get them fed.”
As he walked to the shaded area of the open field where he keeps his hives, he explained there are two popular reasons why people keep bees: to pollinate plants and for honey.
Pollination occurs when pollen from flowers such as Snapdragons or Black Eyed Susan attaches to the bee and the bee flies to another flower, where the bee shakes the pollen off. The pollen contains seeds important to producing a new plant.