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Bee Cause

State Apiarist Keeps An Eye On All That's Buzzing in Maryland

Sam Holden
A HIVE OF ACTIVITY: Jerry Fischer looks after the state's bees.

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By Shelly Blake-Plock | Posted 5/21/2008

Jerry Fischer has sticky hands. But that's all part of the job for Maryland's top apiarist. "I go through about a hundred colonies in a day as a bee inspector. Forty-thousand bees in a colony," he says, lumbering out of his van and into the dogwood orchard near the Oregon Ridge Nature Center in northern Baltimore County.

Approaching the nature center's hives, Fischer is quiet. His white New Balances crunch the dry unmowed grass under the weight of his sturdy frame. The orchard resounds with the hum of buzzing honeybees. "I usually wear nothing more than what I've got on now," Fischer says, leaning over a hive in a pair of khakis, a tan button-down shirt, and a Maryland Department of Agriculture baseball cap. "Bees are very gentle and docile," he assures me.

Fischer burns a torn piece of burlap in an old tin canister fit with what looks like a single fold of an accordion pump, which he occasionally pushes in and out to release puffs. "When you go to a colony, smoke makes bees very gentle," he says. "The proper use of that smoker--by knowing how to use it and when to use it--can minimize stings." Fischer puffs a cloud around the entrance to the hive, and the bees seem to swoon under the spell of the nebulous haze.

Four wooden boxes sit atop one another, the lowest being twice the height of the others. This is the chamber where the brood grows. "The larger boxes are what we call high-bodies," he says, "They are just for the bees. This is where they do everything necessary to keep a colony alive."

A few yards away sit two white boxes; these are new colonies. Fischer opens the top of one of boxes. Ten frames fit snug in the double-deep box. The first few frames are dark and covered in honey and worker bees, whereas the frames opposite are still fresh, only attracting a few slackers. Fischer lifts a frame from the busy side as he explains that it'll take a new colony two seasons to produce enough honey for consumption. The frame in his bare hand is alive with fidgeting bees. Thousands crawl about working furiously on either side of the wax combs. They crawl over Fischer's hands as he shows me where the eggs are laid and explains the stages of honeybee development. Without so much as a second thought, he scoops out a comb of fresh honey and tests its potency.

As state apiarist, Fischer is in charge of inspecting all of Maryland's registered bee colonies and checking them for health issues. "You can pick up your dog or cat and walk into the vet and say, `I think my pet is sick,'" he says, motioning back to the colony just up the path. "There's 40,000 bees in that colony. You can't walk into the vet with that."

Fischer has worked for nearly 30 years in an industry that has historically flown under the radar--that is until the media picked up on colony collapse disorder, or CCD, back in 2006. This bee-death phenomenon has gained national attention due to its economic and agricultural impact on major pollination operations in California and throughout the South. "You hear about it on the radio and on the TV and in the newspapers as if it's something new," Fischer says. "Fact is, it's happened 10 times in the last hundred years."

Theories as to the causes have ranged from everything from unknown contagions to cell-phone frequencies. Fischer, who is helping to study the causes of the disorder, stresses that CCD is not a disease. "What we are finding is that no one thing has caused CCD," he says. "What it comes down to is three things: stress, nutrition, and pesticides." While Maryland has never had losses associated with CCD, Fischer and his five inspectors keep an eye on what happens across the country.

"I've been working bees all my life, really," Fischer says as he heads back to the van. Born and raised on a small farm in Baltimore County, Fischer says that he was brought up understanding what he calls the "central importance" of honeybees. "Without honeybees, we would not be here today," he says. "One third of everything you eat must be pollinated by the honeybee." After time spent in the Army, Fischer returned to civilian life in the early '60s and took up beekeeping in earnest. But more than just keeping hives, his role has become that of a supporter for apiary culture. "My job is to advocate and promote beekeeping," he says. "I want bees all over the area."

In pursuance of this goal, Oregon Ridge Nature Center--in conjunction with the Central Maryland Beekeepers Association--sponsors a training course for aspiring apiarists. "This year there was 68 people just here at Oregon Ridge alone," Fischer says. "There was 336 beekeepers that took short courses at 11 different locations in the state of Maryland this year."

According to Fischer, there are more than 1,500 registered beekeepers in the state. These keepers run over 10,000 colonies in about 1,700 locations. Most are hobbyists. Despite popular conceptions of beekeepers working far from the maddening crowd, Fischer says hives populate vast swathes of even the most populous regions of the state. "I'll show you the book right now," he says, reaching into his van. Flipping a road atlas open to page showing yellow-highlighted dots covering northern Baltimore County, Fischer states proudly, "Look at the amount of beekeepers in that three and a half miles. You've got a beekeeper here every five or six blocks."

"Look at Baltimore City," he continues. Sure enough, Fischer's map is full of highlighted dots from Northern Parkway to the Inner Harbor. "I've got 32 beekeepers in Baltimore City," he says. "Everywhere you go, I've got beekeepers covering the entire state."

Standing amid the bees, Fischer becomes serious. "Without the honeybee, there would not be enough food on the planet Earth to support life as we know it," he says. "You're sitting in your yard and you hear the songbirds singing and the squirrels playing and the deer, well, without honeybees you have nothing. They're pollinating the forests and the trees and the woods and the berries. Without bees? In three or four years it'd be almost a dead world."

Suddenly, the peace of the orchard is disrupted by the ring of Fischer's cell phone. It's someone calling with a question about beekeeping. He's back to work.

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