Region sees spike in beekeepers
ST. LEONARD, Md. — Before he was a beekeeper, Josh Calo flipped houses.
He earned a living speculating up and down the East Coast on real estate properties, renovating and quickly selling them for profit.
That ended in 2007. The Great Recession, sparked by the global collapse of the mortgage bond market, wiped out the real estate industry, bankrupting him.
“No one told me, ‘Oh, your entire industry could disappear.’ You know what I mean? Not just a job or position,” Calo said. “So I went into doomsday Armageddon prep mode.”
Stunned by the sudden failure of his business, he grew concerned that civilization itself might collapse, so he began raising poultry, mushrooms and honeybees in his backyard.
Eventually, his entrepreneurial instincts kicked in.
“I realized there’s abundance,” he said last week, smiling through his curly, footlong beard as he stood next to a series of bee boxes he keeps on the farm of a local food retailer in Calvert County. “There’s abundance in that box.”
About five years ago, Calo launched Solnectar Farm, a honeybee operation in St. Mary’s County, Md., that sells hive equipment, bee pollen, wax and honey, among other bee-related services. He even found a niche that blends his real estate construction experience — helping businesses and homeowners ethically remove pesky bee swarms, which he gladly reincorporates into hives he maintains around the region.
“No beekeeper around here that I know of is going to go up in that (lift) and pull those bees out of that soffit,” he said.
He’s among a fast-rising number of people in the Delmarva region who have taken up beekeeping over the last several years, motivated by news of global catastrophic honeybee losses and a booming local food movement. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of farms with honeybee colonies in Maryland rose by more than 80% to 656 while yearly honey sales nearly doubled to $617,000, according to the USDA’s recently released agricultural census. In Virginia, where more than 1,200 farms keep honeybees, honey sales jumped by a quarter to $1.3 million.
Toni Burnham, secretary and former president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association, said she sees the growth within her organization’s membership, which represents just a small number of the state’s beekeepers, most of whom belong to smaller county groups.
“Almost all of them are growing pretty noticeably,” she said.
When Burnham was president six years ago, the association had roughly 650 members, she said. Today, it boasts more than 1,000. The vast majority of beekeepers in the state are “sideliners” — an industry term for small, backyard operations, she said. Many of the association’s newest members began beekeeping after record winter honeybee losses across the country made news over the last several years, she said — part of rising worldwide interest in environmental issues from global warming to marine pollution.
“We know a lot of people rallied to our cause because of colony collapse disorder,” said Burnham, referring to a phenomenon first publicized in 2006 to explain somewhat mysterious and historic honeybee losses in Europe and North America.
That year, beekeepers began to report unusually high winter losses of 30-90 percent of their hives, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many reported symptoms of colony collapse disorder, including the sudden, inexplicable loss of a colony’s worker bee population with very few dead bees found near the colony. In many hives, the queen and brood remained, and the colonies had abundant honey and pollen reserves.
The problem fascinated Don John, apiary manager at Apex Bee Co., a Baltimore honey operation he started with his wife Cheryl in 2011. The 63-year-old was a mechanical engineer in the defense industry and first read about the issue in USA Today in the winter of 2007.
“It was doom and gloom,” he said. “It’s just my engineering nature. I’m big on statistics. That thing just kind of piqued my interest.”
He and his wife, who owns the company, built 20 hives. He initially raised honeybees to start a pollination business that would require him to move bees from customer to customer. Instead, over about eight years, they created an operation that’s mostly a local honey business — probably one of the two largest in Maryland, he said. They also sell packages of honeybees to other beekeepers.
He declined to discuss the size of his operation, but it’s quickly expanding, and he said Apex isn’t close to meeting the demand for local honey. At Chesapeake’s Bounty in St. Leonard — where Calo manages several bee colonies — 1-pound jars of Apex Bee Co. honey were selling for $11 each.
“I cannot tell you one negative. It’s just been a great ride for us, and it grows and grows and grows,” John said. “I could sell 100 percent more than I could ever produce.”
Colony collapse disorder has become less of an issue in recent years, local beekeepers said, but plenty of concerns remain — primarily the parasitic Varroa mite, often responsible for large percentages of colony losses across the continent. Those concerns continue to drive interest in beekeeping.
Calo occasionally holds classes at places such as Chesapeake’s Bounty, a farm and retail store for local food. When he’s lecturing, his answers to practical questions can digress into long, colorful anecdotes about his beekeeping experiences, catchy aphorisms and quick histories of the field. His honeybees pollinate the farm’s crops, store owner William Kreamer said, and Calo’s classes attract large groups of potential customers.
“People are very interested in the hives,” Kreamer said. “Our honey sales are increasing all the time. It’s getting hard to provide enough local, quality honey to satiate the demand. That is an issue too because we don’t want to push the bees too hard.”
Calo makes less money than he did in real estate but finds life better as a beekeeper. He sees himself as custodian to a critical pollinator.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re such a good talker’ and stuff. No, honeybees are the celebrity. I’m just a mouthpiece for them,” he said. “You know, who’s keeping who really?”
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