Things were really buzzing around Dadant & Sons' bee supply barn near Watertown during the last couple weeks.
The supply barn is used as a warehouse for Dadant, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of beekeeping supplies and distributor of bees.
Each spring, beekeepers from Wisconsin and Illinois, whether hobbyists or professionals, drive up to the dock next to the huge barn to pick up their orders.
They come with enclosed cattle trailers, rental vans, pickup trucks with a cap and station wagons to load the bees they need to replace those that were lost during the winter.
Beekeepers face the same problems other farmers face. When the weather is bad and the crops have problems, usually the bees have problems, too.
Matt LaForge, Dadant's Watertown manager, says because of the harsh winter, the company brought in 18,000 boxes of bees this year, more than ever before.
"Last year we broke our record by bringing in 13,000 boxes," he added.
Bees are sold by the pound, and they handle both two- and three-pound boxes. Most of those picking up bees this year were getting two-pound boxes filled with 7,000 bees and a queen. Each box costs $80.
Dadant monitors the progress of the truck traveling from California with the bees that have been raised in the many fruit and nut orchards and queens that have been brought in from Hawaii. They notify the beekeepers of its expected arrival and when the truck arrives, the bees are moved directly from the truck to the beekeeper's vehicles.
Among those awaiting the arrival of the semi-load of bees arriving from California this week was Liz Vaenoski of Beloit. This longtime beekeeper was greeted immediately by others in the business who lovingly refer to her as "The Queen."
Vaenoski was recently featured on the cover of a national beekeeper's journal, recognizing her as "The Queen of Beeswax Sculpting and Advocate for Beekeeping."
She was dubbed the name by beekeepers who know the importance of the queen in the hive. The queen is the mother of the colony, the central nervous system of the hive and the producer of the workers and drones.
Vaenoski's hardy laugh and enthusiasm for beekeeping has earned her the title among her friends in the industry who recognize her for her prizewinning beeswax sculptures. They also see her as an aggressive advocate for the honey bees and appreciate her generous donations of her beeswax sculptures to bee clubs across the country to use in their fundraisers.
Vaenoski got into serious beekeeping 33 years ago when she married John Vaenoski, but her interest in bees came long before that. Her uncle was a commercial beekeeper in Beloit, and when she grew up, she biked up the road every day to help him manage his bees. As she got older, she wanted to join him in the business, but he told her "beekeeping is not for gals."
She proved him wrong when she later met the man who would become her husband and partner in a commercial beekeeping venture, and she was able to stay in the business she loves.
Like the other beekeepers gathered in Watertown this week, she lost many of her bees in this cold, harsh winter. The bees simply huddle together and don't move out of that huddle to get their feed.
Beekeepers provide a syrup solution to keep their bees alive throughout the winter and discontinue the feeding when spring comes and the first flowers begin to appear. Last year's late spring resulted in losses for some, and this year the combination of the extremely cold winter and the late spring has been especially devastating.
Don Pritchard of Fall River describes himself as a hobbyist beekeeper. He maintains 45 hives and says he lost 40 percent of his bees to this year's winter.
While his business is a hobby, he says it has paid its way for the last 40 years.
"Last year production was down because of the late spring," Pritchard said. "This time of year they should be putting out brood, but when it's so cold and cloudy, they stay in the hive. So far this year we only had one day that was warm enough for them to venture out."
Each box of bees has a can in the center with a sugar solution for feed. There is also a separate little compartment in the container that holds the queen bee and a few attendants.
When the beekeepers get home with the bees, they will gently shake the bees down, remove the can in the center and then the queen. They will place the queen in the hive and then dump the rest of the bees on top.
They reduce the entrance to a small opening to help bees guard the entrance until the colony grows. After a few days, they need to check the colony to make sure the queen was accepted. They continue to feed the bees so the brood will grow. It is important to continue to feed the bees until they have an abundance of nectar available.
Eventually each hive grows to about 70,000 workers. During summer honey flow, June through August, worker honey bees travel about 55,000 miles to gather enough nectar to produce one pound of honey. Each individual worker will only produce about a half teaspoon of honey and about 1/80 teaspoon of beeswax. An entire colony, however, can produce up to 200 pounds in a really good year. Late springs and more rainy days, however, can decrease that production.
Bees are not only working to make honey for the beekeepers.
They are important to all of agriculture, providing an important service pollinating crops. It isn't only the apples, strawberries and other fruit crops that are dependent on bees. They are needed for pollinating alfalfa, clovers and seed crops such as carrots and beets.
Seed companies depend upon bees for pollination, and even maple syrup is dependent on bees because without bees, the maple trees wouldn't produce syrup.
One-third of all food is a direct result of insect pollination, with 80 percent accomplished by the honeybee.