It's been 40 summers since Ernie Miner bought his first beehive. Since then, his two children have grown up and out, he's retired from his job, his wife has left him. But out back, he's still got the bees.
Among rusted implements and bedsprings behind the farmhouse, under the 70-foot firs his daughter planted in high school, stand the white-and-pastel-painted hives at the heart of Ernie's Apiaries. The bees are a source of income, and, it seems this sun-dappled morning, companionship for a 70-year-old man living alone.
"I get tired, but I never get tired of doing it," he says. "There are so many facets to it."
While the honey gets all the attention, bees' help in pollinating crops makes them a vital part of the food chain. Honeybees pollinate about one-third of the food consumed in the world. Without them, fruits and vegetables grow stunted, deformed or not at all. So for decades, farmers have rented domestic bee colonies to pollinate their crops. In 2000, honeybee pollination in the United States was worth $14.6 billion in higher yields and quality, according to a Cornell University study.
Yet bees worldwide have been under siege for 20 years. Plagues of deadly mites, bad weather and the loss of nectar-rich cropland have decimated both wild and domestic bee colonies. In Maryland, mites had wiped out virtually every wild colony in the state by last year and slashed the number of domestically kept hives by half. So if you see a bee in these parts, chances are it belongs to a beekeeper.
"You cannot just keep bees anymore," said David Smith, president of the Maryland State Beekeepers' Association. "You have to manage bees."
With a total of 80 hives, placed on farms throughout Frederick and two other counties, Ernie's Apiaries is among the larger in this region, Smith said. On the whole, Maryland is too densely populated and its crop mix too grain-oriented to be a big beekeeping state, even without the other challenges.
"In Baltimore and the Washington area, bees have a difficult time, versus a field in Nebraska where they have acres of alfalfa, or the blueberry fields of New Jersey," Smith said. More than 90 percent of Maryland's 950 apiaries own fewer than five colonies -- a hive with structures resembling chests of drawers containing a queen and frames that are filled with honey and developing young.
Wearing a beekeeper's jacket varnished with beeswax and grime, Miner leans into the back end of a ramshackle van, lighting a hank of burlap in a bent metal smoker whose lid barely fits anymore. Acrid smoke drifting behind him, "Let's go see the bees," he says. Forgetting to pull up his mesh hood, or maybe never intending to, he sets off.
Bright decals on the hives show they're registered with the state agriculture inspector, who also checks for disease and mites. Mesh on the entrance slits keep out skunks, which eat bees, and mice, which eat honey.
Lifting the lid of a hive with a hook, Miner is quiet and quick. "It looks like chaos, but they all have a mission," he said. He used to be a technical writer at the National Institutes of Health, where a biologist friend introduced him to beekeeping four decades ago.
Miner is a master beekeeper, having passed a series of courses that cultivated an appreciation for how bees fly as far as five miles in search of nectar, for their complicated biology, their social lives. He describes some of the 300 types of honey -- which range from pumpkin to raspberry blossom -- the way a wine connoisseur speaks of grapes. He hates to lose a hive, but he loses six to 12 each season to parasites and disease.
This time of year, Miner and his bees prepare for winter. The bees are filling the frames inside their hives, each the size of a shoebox lid, with honey enough to feed them until spring. Miner lifts each frame, checking the honeycomb to make sure there is enough for them and some extra for him. In late summer, he harvests the honey by removing the frames, trimming off the combs' waxen caps with a heated knife, and spinning them in a centrifuge. He collects about 1,200 pounds of honey a year, selling most of it at the Frederick County Fair in mid-September. He also raises some hives to sell.
There was a time when he used to load his van with 75 hives, drive them up the Eastern Shore and leave them for the summer on the cantaloupe, watermelon and cucumber farms to pollinate the crops. But the hives can weigh a couple of hundred pounds apiece, and he hasn't got it in him anymore. He sells beekeeping equipment now, from his house.
The bee business "doesn't pay the rent, but it's a lot of money to me," Miner said. How much money, he won't know until winter, when the bees rest in a cluster at the bottom of their hives and Miner spreads the summer's receipts on the old desk in the entry hall.
Hobbyist beekeepers produce less than 5 percent of the country's honey, about 200 million pounds a year, according to the National Honey Board, a Longmont, Colo.-based industry group. Americans consume twice that much, so the rest comes from abroad. As producers worldwide battle disease and parasites, fears grow that imported honey doesn't meet U.S. standards. Last year, antibiotics that are banned here were found in Chinese and Argentinean honey. "As with most agricultural products, imports are a concern," said Julia Pirnack, National Honey Board executive vice president. "When you have a product so associated in people's minds with being healthy and pure, you want to keep it that way."
Small domestic beekeepers, she said, tend to "really care about the product." After all, "you're not going to make a fortune doing it."
The bees flow from the hives, zipping arcs over Miner's head, stinging him three times but bothering him not at all. He lifts a comb ripe with honey. Then it's back to the house, through a bachelor's kitchen that's a jumble of dishes and honey packaging, cookbooks and hardware store receipts, for the presentation of the final product. The bottle is the shape of the wild bee colonies that nobody sees anymore. The honey glows heavy and fine, the color of fall and fading flowers.
"Take it," he says, and it's the whole trip back across the kitchen and out into the yard before he'll accept any money for it. A bee has flown through the screen door into the kitchen. Miner leaves it alone and wanders, smiling, back into the yard.