THE BEEKEEPER'S BEEKEEPER
Brengarth Honey Label
Beekeeping was unknown in the Western Hemisphere until after the first European settlers arrived. Bees were imported from England and Germany to the colonies where beekeeping became an important home industry. In 1641, bee colonies in New England were sold for 5 pounds apiece, the equivalent of 15-days labor by a skilled craftsman. By the end of the 18th century, bees were fairly common throughout the eastern half of the continent. Often bees would swarm and form a colony in a hollow tree.
As bees slowly moved westward, they would swarm and often form a colony in a hollow tree. Early settlers were always on the lookout for a “bee tree” to provide sweetening for their food, as sugar was not readily available in early central Missouri. The Missouri Indians were very familiar with “bee trees by the time the early settlers arrived. Native Americans referred to honey bees as “the white man’s fly, and regarded their presence as indicating the coming of white settlers.” (source USDA Agriculture Handbook number 335)
Eventually, some who had become successful working with bees, became backyard or commercial beekeepers. The central Midwest now has modest honey production. However, the increased use of chemicals used in farming has been very detrimental to honey bee colonies. In the last 15 years bee diseases seem to have become much more prevalent and the use of neonicotinoids has been fatal to honey bees and many other insects such as bumble bees and butterflies.
Colony Collapse Disorder in the U.S. (from Wikipedia)
The number of managed colonies in the United States for honey production has been in decline since the 1940s and these losses have increased since the early 2000s. Colony losses during winter are normal within beekeeping, however the rate of honeybee colony deaths, higher losses during the summer, as well as the inability to find a determinate cause of these deaths has caused alarm. In 2006, some beekeepers reported losing 30-90% of their hives. Total colony loss reached 45% between 2012 and 2013, up from 28.9% and 36.4% in previous years. While annual losses above 30% are not out of the ordinary, the symptoms of these colony losses do not all match with those normally produced by known pests and pathogens. The amount of loss experienced as well as uncertainty around the cause of the loss lead to the coining of the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) by the beekeeping community.
Musings of a Lady Beekeeper
In 1970, before we had children, we decided to try beekeeping as a hobby. We lived on 10 rented acres near Waukegan, Illinois. I had grown up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, so country living was new to me. We had a small garden and also raised chickens, rabbits, peacocks, dogs, cats and two baby raccoons. But our favorite pastime was "working" our bees.
We started with two hives and 15 later years we were up to 45 hives. Some of the hives were the result of swarms caught from our own bees. Many came from removing bees from live and dead trees, inside and outside of buildings, and a few strange places. One of the strangest places was on the roof of a local one-story bank where the bees were draped over the front door. At the time, I was working as an Extension Agent. The office occasionally got calls from people who needed to have bees removed, and we, or two others in the area, would hurry to help when a call came in. One day a call came and no one was available to help. As my husband was an excavator with his own business, I volunteered, and dashed home, got my "bee shirt," veiled hat and gloves, plus a hive body and cover, my smoker and a bee brush, and hurried to the bank. They provided the ladder and I was able to capture the bees by gently brushing them into the hive body with a frame of sealed honey inside. (They only stayed in the box because I was fortunate to capture the queen. The hardest part was getting the box, bottom board and cover down from the roof intact. My bee recovery made the front page of the Grayslake paper. We never charged for our service, although some were very time consuming, because we felt that the bees were our reward.
In 1992 we made a huge mistake, which we still regret. We had run out of hive bodies for our bees. We answered an ad in the paper from someone who was "getting out of the bee business". This very pious man sold us enough hive bodies for 8 more hives of bees, assuring us that his bees had been healthy, but that he was just "too old" to keep bees and wanted to sell his equipment. We added swarms to the new "used" boxes in our largest bee yard which had about 25 hives. Up until this time, our hives had all be very healthy and we had never lost a hive. Soon, we discovered that these hive bodies were not "disease free" and our bees started to diminish in population.
The state bee inspector checked the hives and said that they must be destroyed - bees and all, that nothing could be done to save them. We learned that the disease that they had contracted, was “foul brood, ”but we did what we were told to do. We had to burn the hives with the bees in them. I want to cry, even now, when I remember what we had to do. Our enthusiasm for beekeeping diminished greatly after that.
When we moved to Missouri in 2006, we again wanted to try beekeeping. The kids were grown and gone, we were retired, and we had 11 acres in the country. What could go wrong? Well, farming practices had changed a great deal since 1992. Many more dangerous chemicals are being used now than we had experienced in Illinois. Using pre-emergent or post-emergent chemicals, spraying by plane, and nicotinoids (chemicals with nicotine in them that protect the plants, but confuse the bees when they collect the nectar, so they cannot find their way home). This is believed to be the major cause of “colony collapse”.
We bought two "boxes" of bees after my husband constructed two new hive bodies. I think we paid about $60 for each two-pound box of bees with a queen. (Since bees are almost an endangered species today, the same 2-pound box today would probably be closer to $200.) We caught two swarms and added them to the new hives. The first winter we lost one hive, but do not know why. That Spring we added two new hives from our swarms. The hives that summer were loaded with honey and we took off half of it in mid-July. A week after extracting the honey I went to do a weekly check on the bees and found that all the bees were GONE, and so was the rest of the honey. The hives were empty except for a few sealed egg cells. Evidently three things might have happened: 1) the bees ingested the nicotine from the nectar of the crops that surround us on three sides, or 2) they were caught gathering nectar when the crops were sprayed so they could not find their way home and died 3) "robber" bees cleaned out what was left of the honey and took it their hives located elsewhere. Since bees can travel as far as two miles in search of nectar and honey, this seems a reasonable conclusion. After three years of trying our hobby of beekeeping for the second time it was time to call it quits.
What I miss most about beekeeping, beside working with the bees, and working as a team with my husband, is the wonderful aroma that greets you when you open a healthy hive to inspect it or to gather honey. It is hard to describe - wonderfully fruity, sweet, fragrant and clean. Impossible to describe perfectly, but I really miss the joy of being greeted by it.
Barbara Dahl, Editor