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Busy Bees and the Keepers

For some they're a pest, others a necessity, and for a select few, bees are a bustling commodity.

by Arlene Karidis

He is like a professional “bee buster” of sorts. Tim Hastings, of Hastings Apiaries, specializes in removing the venturous, winged creatures from their two most common haunts: the stakeouts where swarms congregate while looking for new homes, and the places they settle with plans to stay — which are typically people’s houses.

“Bees collectively decide to swarm if their colony gets too large for their space. About half the colony leaves and holds onto a tree or bush or a picnic table while scout bees go out looking for a [permanent] home,” explains Tim.

He escorts swarms from their temporary holding places using a little bee psychology. “I test their temperament by rubbing my hand across some of them. If they move onto my hand then go back to the group, I know they’re docile, which most are.” Tim moves slowly, gently coaxing swarms into honeycomb-filled frames. If he lures the queen, the others follow, and he has a new colony to pollinate the crops on his farm, outside of Hagerstown.

But if a swarm isn’t retrieved, it means trouble down the road, and Tim has a bigger job ahead of him. “Once the scout comes back to the bees’ holding spot, it communicates it’s found a suitable new home. They take to the air like a tornado — anywhere from a thousand to 40,000 of them.” The relocating honeybees get into walls or overhangs and build honeycomb where the queen starts laying eggs. To get rid of them now, Tim has to tear open the structure they’ve settled in. “And you need a bee remover who knows what they are doing or it can be a repair nightmare for homeowners,” Tim says.

“I peel the structure open nice and slow to not startle the bees. I make different saw cuts to free the structure and pry open the wall or whatever the colony settled into. Then I use a vacuum for drawing out loose bees once the honeycomb is gone.”

Fred Smith of F&D Apiaries doesn’t just do bee removal; he’s also in a line of work where the winged ones are his partners. The Hagerstown resident takes his 240 hives from Washington County to the Eastern Shore and all the way up to New Jersey to pollinate crops on large farms.

“I put the hives in boxes that I load into my flatbed truck, three high, in the middle of the night. We drive out to the farms, set the boxes on pallets in fields, and when the sun comes up they come out and go right at the pollen,” Fred says.

Staying Busy

“Farmers need the bees, but they don’t want to mess with them. While some bees, like Italian queens are docile, others like Russians are aggressive. If the weather’s cool or damp, they get upset and you can get stung up,” Fred explains. He stays out of harm’s way by wearing coveralls, gloves and a veil. And he burns twine (traditionally used for bailing hay) in a can to send up smoke, which calms the insects.

The outcome of his work is a win-win for both Fred and his clients. “The farmers get the healthy crops; and we get the honey the bees make from nectar and pollen.” Fred sells the honey at craft shows around Washington County, through Valley Co-op in Boonsboro, and online.

Taking care of his hard-working crew is not easy, though. “You have to make sure there are no mites or beetles in the hives. And we’ve had bears tear up the hives and had to put electric fences around them.” Through tender care, Fred keeps them around beyond their working season. “They go into semi hibernation in fall, come out when it’s warm, and they work for you all spring.”

In spring, Rinehart Orchards, outside of Smithsburg, rents 85 hives. Most orchards tap into this service. “We only need them for up to 10 days, but we would have to take care of them all year, so it’s more economical to rent hives,” said J.D. Rinehart, the orchard’s owner. The colonies are star players in maintaining his 100 acres of peach and 300 acres of apple trees.

“I would estimate bees increase our fruit set [number of apples that stick to the tree] by 33 to 50 percent. If blossoms do not get pollinated they simply die and drop off the tree. They need to be fertilized to grow an apple, and that’s what bees do.”

Fred’s father, Charles Smith, is still working orchards at age 78. Much has changed in the 70 years since he started with his grandfather. It’s become harder to keep the bees alive and get as much as he can from them.

“We have to treat bees for diseases they weren’t getting before. There’s also more mowing of public grounds, and farmers aren’t allowed to grow thistle anymore. So bees have less to work from,” Charles says, noting he’d have a hard time generating enough honey to sell like in the olden days. That’s why he only rents for pollination. “But at least we stay in business because it’s become too costly and time consuming for farmers to do their own beekeeping like they used to.”

Hasting Apiaries

F & D Apiaries
(301) 992-7197
17808 Greentree Lane
Hagerstown, MD 21740