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Thursday, 02 March 2017 16:23

Fate of honeybees in hands of backyard keepers

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Beekeeper Dan O’Leary tends to his hives last year. Despite sharp declines in bee populations, O’Leary says backyard beekeepers have an important role in maintaining the strength of colonies for agriculture. Beekeeper Dan O’Leary tends to his hives last year. Despite sharp declines in bee populations, O’Leary says backyard beekeepers have an important role in maintaining the strength of colonies for agriculture. Photo courtesy of Dan O'Leary

JANESVILLE -- There’s been a buzz in environmental news recently, and local beekeepers are taking notice.

The fate of the humble bee, a critical but often overlooked contributor to agriculture, may now lie in the hands of dedicated backyard enthusiasts.

The bee once was a prolific pollinator in the Midwest, but scientists say pesticide exposure and habitat loss have caused a 90 percent reduction of its range in the past 20 years.

Last year alone, beekeepers lost nearly 45 percent of their bees, mainly due to colony collapse disorder.

And help likely won’t come from federal regulators.

The rusty-patched bumblebee was added to the Endangered Species list late in President Barack Obama’s term, but President Donald Trump’s administration put a hold on that designation one day before it was to take effect.

"I think the backyard beekeepers will make the difference in honeybee survival," said Dan O’Leary of East Troy, a lifelong beekeeper.

Backyard beekeepers maintain hives and harvest honey, but unlike commercial honey producers, the hives are kept in a permanent location.

O’Leary explained that commercial production requires bees to act like migrant workers, traveling around the country to pollinate various crops. Orchards and vegetable farms depend on them, but it’s not an ideal situation for the hive.

Bees do better when they have a stable living situation, such as backyard beekeepers provide. O’Leary comes from a family of such beekeepers. His grandfather had bees. His father, siblings, son and grandsons continue the family tradition. 

O’Leary is encouraging a new generation of bee enthusiasts. He will teach a beekeeping class for beginners on Saturday, March 11, in East Troy. The class is designed for anyone who has an interest in honeybees.

Lifelong journey

Classes such as these often start a beekeeper on a lifelong journey.

Don Blakeney said talking to other beekeepers often can provide the answers for aspiring beekeepers.

Blakeney and his wife, Janet Kassel, are the owners of Amazing Grace Family Farm in Janesville and have kept bees off and on since 1973. He lost a lot of bees last year but has a dozen hives this year. The farm sells the honey on site and at farmers markets, so the "hobby" pays for itself.

"Our pollinators are in great jeopardy," Blakeney said. "This works for us (keeping honeybees) because my son grows a lot of vegetable crops that need those pollinators."

Still, Blakeney considers it a hobby.

"There’s always so much to learn,  and while there’s a lot of information out there on the web and so on, there’s almost too much to pick through."

Joe Brady of Cambridge has been raising honeybees for four years.

"I love the outdoors, always had an interest in it and had a friend who wanted to get into it," he said. "So, I said, ‘Let’s do it.’"

Brady says he’s always searching for new information.

"I just fell in love with it, though I’m a rank amateur. But that’s the thing, there’s so much to learn." 

Brady belongs to the Walworth County Beekeepers Club and the Dane County Beekeepers Association. He has four hives; three are doing well, while one was weak and died out in early December.

"I can’t explain it," he said. "It just never flourished."

Brady seeks advice from other club members and established beekeepers but cautions there’s always more than one way to do things.

A beekeeper doesn’t so much control his hives as guide them, so advice to guide the beekeeper can be invaluable.

"It’s such a great community of people," he said, though he cautions, "you can ask six beekeepers and you’ll get seven answers because one will change his answer halfway through." 

Getting started

Rick Sallman of Delavan, education committee chair of the Walworth County club, agrees and often acts as a mentor for club members who want to start beekeeping. Last week, he spent time with Michael Bush, author of "The Practical Beekeeper." Bush had been the presenter at the club-sponsored, two-day workshop, and when Sallman drove him to the airport to catch his flight home to Nebraska, they talked bees.

"We have a lot in common,"  Sallman said. "He’s developed a theory about raising bees without treatments for pests or diseases. It’s some of the same ideas I’ve had. Minimal interventions is the goal."

One of the dilemmas for beekeepers the past few years has been the invasion of Varroa mites -- should you treat with pesticides? Bush argued that the use of pesticides and antibiotics means actually making the bees weaker.

"The chemicals build up in the wax and cause sterile drones, which in turn causes failing queens," Bush said. "A bee colony is a system onto itself of beneficial and benign fungi, bacteria, yeasts, mites, insects and other flora and fauna that depend on the bees."

Sallman and O’Leary see the wisdom of this holistic approach.

"Miticide is very hard on the bees," O’Leary said. "There are softer applications and the choice to use no treatment. In Russia, the bees have developed a natural resistance to the mites, for example." 

Different bees offer varying levels of resistance. Yes, that’s right, a beekeeper can order Italian bees, which are calm, gentle and resistant to foulbrood disease. But they don’t make as much propolis -- bee glue -- as let’s say the Carniolan bee.

These bees, often called Carnies, are also gentle, but they swarm at the drop of a hat. Russian bees can survive mites and harsh winters better than other varieties. But they are more expensive.

Yes, there is a lot to learn about bees and beekeeping. There is help for aspiring beekeepers, though. And as Blakeney points out, "the two- or three-hive beekeeper is the fastest growing portion of this, and that’s exactly what we need."

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