Dennis Miller—who likes to say that his day job fixing TVs found him "behind the set, not on it"—has been selling bees and apiary supplies from his home in Chase for the past 15 years. The native Tar Heel, now 66, has been around bees his whole life.
"When I was growing up in the western Carolinas, everybody had bees," says Miller. "If you didn't have money to buy store sugar, you kept honeybees. We would all be a lot better off if everybody kept bees."
Beekeeping has become trendy in the wake of sudden and mysterious "dead-outs" in hives across America, first reported in late 2006 and still lingering. A plague known as "colony collapse disorder" hit the industry, and some commercial apiarists lost up to 90 percent of their bees. Though Maryland was mostly spared, invasions of mites have been devastating local hives since the mid-1980s.
Into the breach has come a new wave of artisans and amateurs, some neo-hippies and gardening geeks; all greenies (with the usual dilettantes and bandwagoners) devoted to an increasingly elusive "sustainability." The Huffington Post even held a contest to find America's "cutest beekeeper."
Miller sees beekeepers swarming his way from the city. "The last time [it was like this] was the 1970s, a real big honey movement of young people who were gonna live off the land," he says. "Those hippies figured out how hard it is to live off the land and went to live off someone else."
Each spring, Miller makes trips to Georgia (where the season breaks earlier than it does along the Chesapeake) and brings back hundreds of boxes of bees to sell in Maryland. He says that many of the people who come to him for queen bees, gloves, and the beekeeper's burka are in their 20s and 30s. "The rest are pretty much retired like me and just like to sit around and watch bees work," he adds.
Jerry Fischer, Maryland State apiary inspector, confirms that more than half of the new beekeepers are under the age of 30, where some 15 years ago, most were about 50.
"All of the area bee clubs give short courses for beginners and most of those classes doubled in the last two years," Fischer says. "Baltimore County and Montgomery County had been getting about 35 or 40 students a year. Last year, [enrollment] was up around 80 to 100."
He says a desire to get back to—and take care of—nature is driving renewed interest. He sees a lot of parents with young children getting involved.
"People are more family oriented now," he says. "They're looking for things they can do at home."
Honeybees have been kept in Baltimore since the English began settling the Inner Harbor in the 17th century. The harvest must have been especially sweet in the 18th century when the city prospered around granaries holding sugar from the Caribbean. These days, Locust Point continues to house dockside sugar shacks where mountains of "raw" wait to be polished at the Domino factory.
And bees love sugar.
So when swarms belonging to longtime Maryland beekeeper and nature photographer Steve McDaniel tire of the median strip greens near downtown's St. Vincent de Paul Church—where McDaniel keeps them—they head to Domino and ferry sticky sweets back to their hive.
Roadside weeds make for a mellow honey. The stuff produced at St. Vincent's is often a heavy brown with an especially raw taste from the Domino spillage. It won six blue ribbons last year at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium.
"I was mystified why honey in this part of Baltimore had a different taste from anywhere else," says McDaniel. "Then I figured it out. They were going over to the sugar house across the harbor."
Asked about the prospects for this year's harvest the week after the double-whammy blizzards, McDaniel says: "It's a warm summer day inside the hive—93 degrees. The bees have it better than we do!"
The Baltimore City Health Code for exotic animals—regulating everything from Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to the pigeon coops that once crowded backyards all across town—allows the keeping of bees under certain provisions. In the late 1960s, a teenaged preacher's son named William P. Cook kept some 40,000 bees on the roof of the Old St. Paul's rectory on West Saratoga Street and sold the honey—"Baltimore Brown Bill"—for 50 cents a pound. But colonies that large today are rare in the city.
Each colony must be registered with the Maryland Department of Agriculture; only one hive containing a single colony is allowed per 2,500 square feet; and the hives must be "inaccessible" to the public. The movement of bees to and from the hive cannot "unreasonably interfere" with the proper enjoyment of the property of others—translated as "keep your darned bees out of my yard'"—nor get in the way of the public comfort or right-of-ways.
But if you're keeping bees in the backyard, you're going to get stung—though not all the time and much less after you get the hang of things. Still, it'll happen at least once.
(And while there is a long history of using bee stings for medicinal purposes—it's been likened to acupuncture, and Steve McDaniel has deliberately stung a friend to help with a bad knee—the average American would rather avoid the experience.)
"The stings have all been our fault," laughs Liz Horne Smith, convinced that the bees mistake her dark, curly hair for an animal, possibly a bear.
Smith took a beekeeping class at Oregon Ridge in 2009, bought her supplies from Miller, and hopes to be giving homegrown honey for Christmas this year. She expects to harvest some 70 pounds of it.
Smith and her husband Kevin, a home-brew aficionado, are part of the urban farming movement. The Hamilton couple keeps Italian bees—as opposed to the other dominant type, the Russian. The Italian bee is said to be, though it seems to be a contradiction, both gentler and more in tune with the urban environment.
"We talked about having a hive for years," says Smith, a private school teacher who lives with Kevin, a National Guardsman, and their two boys near the corner of Carter and Bayonne Avenues.
One of the selling points of the house the couple bought behind Hamilton Middle School was the big yard, at least by city standards. It's a third of an acre on which the Smiths raise chickens and grow a wide range of vegetables—including heirloom fish peppers—for canning. Smith family plantings also include sunflowers, nasturtiums, and lavender to supply succulent nectar to their bees.
"I wanted to expand my contributions to nature and the kids love honey," says Smith. "We do it because we try to be eco-friendly and help the bees. There is something amazingly connected about a thriving hive—the clean warm smell you get when you open it and the gentleness of the bees as they walk around the frame.
"And that persistent humming," she says, "is almost magical."
Denzel Mitchell, a downtown grade-school teacher, keeps bees in the schoolyard to show his pre-K to 5th grade students an alternative to just grabbing a jar of honey off the supermarket shelf. Mitchell also gets his supplies from Miller, whose homespun humor has made him popular with the new generation of beekeepers.
"My students tasted some honey right off the comb and went bananas," says Mitchell, the "food and greening" teacher at the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School on Guilford Avenue.
Mitchell, who also keeps bees at his home in Belair-Edison, hopes to harvest 30 to 40 pounds of honey at the school this year.
The school's bees—Russians and Carniolans—are not that far from the vegetation along the banks of the Jones Falls. Mitchell's home bees—Italians and Carniolans—fly through the varied lengths of Herring Run Park for nectar.
When asked what accounts for the difference in the quality and taste of the honey they produce, Mitchell is stumped. "Who knows?" says the affable rookie, who also will put up hives this year at a friend's farm in Pennsylvania. "I'm still learning. But I know that if you ask five different beekeepers the same question, you'll get seven different answers."
After some initial fears, his students are now comfortable and excited to be working with bees. "We had some overprotective moms complaining that their kids were going to get stung, but the chorus of 'pro-bee-ness' drowned them out!" beams Mitchell.
"Too many parents think children can't keep bees—they're either too busy or afraid of kids getting stung," says Mitchell, who includes his own kids (ages 8, 6, 5, and 1) in all of his "urban homesteading" projects. "I look at it as a way to pass on a legacy."
Because our beleaguered planet is in dire need of help, Mitchell believes that traditional pursuits like beekeeping, however stylish at the moment, will continue to grow, while things like bowling leagues and stamp collecting decline. "My theory is this is connected to the movement for sustainable [agricultural] practices," he says. "More environmental consciousness among the young has led to younger beekeepers."
Perhaps most of all, keeping bees is one of those hobbies—and here is where Miller and Mitchell may differ—where the work seems more like fun than labor. Speaking for his fellow hive hipsters, Mitchell says: "It's [freaking] cool!"
But John Moyer, of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association, has seen them come and go. Moyer, who edits The Beeline (the group's journal), wonders if—like pursuits such as guitar lessons or golf—many people will abandon it after a couple of years. "A lot of these folks are just what we call sideliners," he says. "I wouldn't say they weren't serious, because to keep bees you have to have some degree of seriousness. But after a few years, they give it up."
Dennis Miller echoes those sentiments. "All the news on TV about colony collapse had people thinking they were going to help the poor bees out," says Miller. "Like I said, this [fad] happened before in the 1970s when all those jokers were going to live off the land. How many will be keeping bees three years from now? Who knows?"