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Charmed Life

Nice Buzz

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 3/21/2001

Once, as a lad on a Harford County farm, Robert Crouse captured a swarm of honeybees. "I didn't know what to do with it," he recalls, "and they died."

These days "Bee Bob," as he sometimes calls himself, knows exactly what to do with bees, but he's not immune to strokes of bad luck. He gestures unhappily at a row of hives perched on a terrace behind his house in Woodlawn. "This is the worst year I've ever had. I had nine hives going into the winter and now I have only one."

Fortunately, Dogwood Apiary, as Crouse calls his backyard business, is a hobby and not his livelihood; he holds a day job at the nearby Social Security Administration. Crouse started keeping bees soon after moving to his present home 12 years ago. The house sits on a large parklike property that puts neighbors at a safe distance from the hives. Crouse's advertising campaign consists of a small yellow sign on the front lawn reading local honey for sale--how sweet it is. He also sells homegrown beeswax and handmade candles.

It's early March, still too cold for bees to venture out, so the one live hive in Crouse's yard looks just like the dead ones. Crouse believes the latter fell prey to Varroa jacobsoni, a parasitic mite that attacks bee larvae and adults alike. Native to Africa, Varroa mites invaded North America in 1985 and have lately grown resistant to the most popular mite-killing pesticide. Last fall Crouse tried a new product, but it didn't do the job. "It's like a flea on a bee," he says of his nemesis. "It sucks the blood of a bee. It can kill a hive in one season." The only thing worse, Crouse says, would be bears, which not only eat up the honey--bees and all--but rip hives to shreds in the process.

He lifts the two upper sections of the lone surviving hive, revealing a small gang of worker bees milling around on top of the bottommost section. They seem not to notice the intrusion. Crouse quickly closes up the hive to keep the cold out. All winter, he explains, bees maintain a temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit inside the hive, a task they accomplish by decoupling their wings from their wing muscles and vibrating the muscles at their normal high speeds. To cool the hive in summer, the worker bees bring in thousands of droplets of water, which they fan with their wings.

Crouse supports his vast bee knowledge with a substantial library of apiary lore. "There's been more books written about honeybees," he declares, "than any other subject except religion." In one thick book he finds a much-magnified photograph of Varroa mites clinging to a milky-white bee larva like hideous polka dots. Almost as disturbing are the clinical drawings of bee sex life. The natural behavior of Apis mellifera (the Latin name means "honey-bearing bee") reads like dystopian science fiction. A bee colony consists of thousands of sterile females--worker bees--who dedicate their brief lives to raising the next generation of larvae. A chosen few from each larval brood are fed a glandular secretion called "royal jelly" and become rival queens, fated to contend for the loyalty of the hive. Male bees, called drones, are born from unfertilized eggs. After mating, a drone's sexual apparatus tears off, and he bleeds to death. Think about that the next time you spoon some honey.

In addition to books, hives, and hive-maintenance equipment, Crouse's pastime involves a couple thousand dollars' worth of devices for extracting, filtering, and packaging the golden end product. He reckons that he cleared just about $120 last year; it will cost him more than that to replace the bees he lost over the winter. If that bothers Bee Bob, he doesn't let it show. The quest for honey transcends commerce. It's an epicurean obsession, like home brewing or breeding orchids.

And in terms of honey, not money, Crouse has found great success. His specialties are locust and tulip-poplar honey, packaged with or without chunks of comb, or in unbroken combs sold just the way the bees left them. The honey itself is naturally delicious, with a distinct floral flavor, but Crouse gets credit for the purity, presentation, and ideal moisture content of his finished product. Casually mounted on sheets of cardboard, dozens of purple, blue, red, and gold ribbons from county fairs and regional competitions attest to his skills as an apiarist.

A side benefit of beekeeping is camaraderie. "You get to socialize with all these crazy people who like to deal with stinging insects," Crouse says. He is secretary and a past president of the local apiarists' organization, Central Maryland Beekeepers, which counts 180 members. Besides monthly gatherings, the group offers a five-session course in beekeeping, at the end of which lucky neophytes can go home with swarms of their own.

Which brings us, at last, to the question Crouse normally hears first: Do you get stung a lot? He smiles dryly. He generally works on hives barehanded, only wearing protective gear "when I'm robbing 'em," he says

"Does a carpenter get splinters?" He grins. "Sure, it happens, but if it happens a lot you get out of the business."

For more information about Central Maryland Beekeepers, contact Jerry Fischer, (410) 682-3251, or Kirk Dreier at Oregon Ridge Nature Center, (410) 887-1815.

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