How to Bee of Assistance

One-man Squad Comes to Aid of Apiculture Novices
By Sala Levin ’10 | Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle

Mark Dykes’ job was made for social distancing.

Nobody’s tempted to get close as he stands outside a rural Charles County, Md., home and dons a beekeeping hat with mesh veil, then aims a spray of smoke around a box cheerfully decorated with painted flowers. While the morning air soon smells like a brisket on the barbecue, the focus here is on that smoke and its effect on the honey bees inside. It counteracts their alarm pheromones that prepare them to attack, allowing Dykes to pry open the box and pull out a frame crawling with bees and dripping with honey.

Dykes, coordinator of the University of Maryland’s Bee Squad, is here to check on the up to 80,000 bees that now call Claire Brooks’ home theirs, too. He’s monitoring for disease-causing mites and any other warning signs in this two-box hive he installed the week prior. It’s all an effort to help bees get their buzz back after historic losses—recent years have seen staggering colony loss among bees kept in managed colonies.

The energetic one-person squad, formed last year in the university’s honey bee lab led by entomology Associate Professor Dennis vanEngelsdorp, offers a range of classes and services for people interested in beekeeping, including setting up hives and checking on their health. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdown, Dykes checked on bees while their human owners kept a watchful distance.

The goal, says Dykes, is to “bring science to the art of beekeeping and reduce colony loss.” Though honey bees—critical to pollinating a huge range of crops and wild plants—are not endangered, other species of bees are. The Bee Squad hopes to learn more about bee nutrition, pest management and other issues that can inform best management practices.

Inspired by a similar program at the University of Minnesota, the Bee Squad manages about a dozen hives across the state of Maryland and hopes to expand. (Bees can live in most climates, says Dykes, though bees in frigid northern climes are dormant for four or five months a year, while southern bees are “more of a year-round affair.”)

An ecologist by training, Dykes began his bee journey in a University of Florida bee lab, where he eventually became apiary manager. He “fell in love” with bees, he says, noting that with their sophisticated communal lifestyle they exist “at the intersection between ecology, agriculture and sociology.”

His passion for bees isn’t unique. “I was always into bees,” says Brooks. “I think they’re neat creatures. When I saw the opportunity (to have the Bee Squad help maintain a hive), it was like, ‘Here’s my ticket.’”

Though Brooks has several acres of property, bees only need as much space as the hives take up. Some local beekeepers keep bees on their urban balconies. Wherever they live, bees know to fly beyond their immediate surroundings in search of food—one will go out, find a food source and return to its colony to tell its hivemates where the snacks are.

Of course, every rose has its thorn—and every bee its stinger. Dykes estimates he’s been stung thousands of times over the years. “The upside is, the more you get stung the less you react,” he says. “The downside is they always hurt.”


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