Adam Finkelstein and Kelly Rausch met because of bees. Now, about 15 years later, the chemical-free bees they breed together are creating a bit of a buzz.
In 1995, Finkelstein was a graduate student at Virginia Tech studying insects, specializing in honeybees, and working as a teaching assistant. Rausch, a biology student, was in one of his classes. By 1996, they were a couple.
Though they both have full-time day jobs -- Rausch is a malaria vaccine developer at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, and Finkelstein is an IT professional near Baltimore -- they have been running a business called VP Queen Bees out of their Frederick home since 2008. When they are not at their jobs, they breed queen bees and sell them to both commercial beekeepers and hobbyists.
They regard themselves as certified organic farmers of the beekeeping community, Finkelstein said. Their breeding stock has not been treated with chemicals since 1999. Instead, they breed their bees to be tolerant of mites and other colony dangers.
One element of their breeding method is artificial insemination. They collect semen from male honeybees, then anesthetize a virgin queen bee with carbon dioxide, Finkelstein said. She is then cradled in a small cup and, under a microscope, inseminated.
"We're able to control both sides of the cross that way," Finkelstein said of the breeding.
In coming years, the couple hope to expand their business. The biggest queen breeders in the country make 100,000 to 200,000 queens per year. Finkelstein and Rausch make about 1,500, which they sell for up to $165 each.
During their busiest time of year, from mid-March to mid-August, they will come home from work and then work with the bees for eight hours after that, Rausch said.
And because they live in a residential neighborhood, Rausch and Finkelstein keep their bees on a number of farms around the area.
Although it involves hard work, they said they are passionate about breeding bees that are hardy and healthy without chemicals.
"It's a great challenge," Rausch said.
"It's gotten to be very difficult to produce honey or bees," Finkelstein said.
A number of factors, including climate change and its effects on the environment, have contributed to the shift.
"A beginning beekeeper used to be able to get a box and a smoker, and they were in business," he said. That's no longer the case.
He and Rausch hope their bees might help start a trend.
They hope to start one, too.
"I would like to be remembered as being one of the people who wanted people to work together in their breeding technique," Finkelstein said. They like to collaborate and crossbreed with like-minded beekeepers in the area, he said.
"Agriculture lost that sort of feeling of helping your neighbor and working together."