As beekeeping gets harder, more people setting up hives

Wisconsin State Farmer


Beekeeping has changed significantly in the nearly 30 years Bill Johnson has had his hives.

Johnson, who operates Johnson Honey Farm outside Guttenberg, Iowa, with his family, said his bees require a very close eye on their health, due in large part to the types of chemicals they are exposed to on plants.

``Beekeeping is a lot harder to do now,'' he told the Telegraph Herald.

His wife, Louise Johnson, whose grandparents had hives, agreed.

``I'd go out with my grandpa in the spring, we'd put the bees out, he'd set the honey boxes on top, leave the bees alone all summer long and go back in the fall to take the honey out,'' she said. ``That was beekeeping. Now, you really have to know what you're doing.''

While bee health is an ongoing concern, Iowa Apiarist Andrew Joseph said the added attention to the bees' plight has helped drive more new beekeepers. He said the number of beekeepers in Iowa has gone from 1,500 to 4,500 in the past decade.

``There has been a lot of enthusiasm,'' he said.

Bill Johnson said widespread use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides on farmland has been a big problem for bees.

A recent example, he noted, was when an aerial spray targeting mosquitoes likely to carry the zika virus accidentally killed millions of bees in South Carolina.

``They sprayed when the bees were out,'' Johnson said.

While some chemicals might not immediately kill bees, he said they can lead to weakened immune systems.

The spraying problem is compounded when farmers mix products together, so the possible effects aren't known.

Johnson said to best protect bees, chemical spraying should be done at night or during dusk or dawn hours, when bees likely are to be inside colonies instead of out foraging.

Johnson said he's been able to work well with many of his farming neighbors to ensure his bees are safe.

``A jar of honey goes a long way with neighbor relations,'' he said.

Karen Buch, of Willow Creek Apiaries, in Potosi, Wisconsin, said along with chemical concerns, the expansion of farmland in her area has cut down on areas with vegetation to support the bees.

``We're running out of places to put (hives),'' she said.

Johnson said he's fortunate there is a lot of unfarmable bluff area where he keeps his bees, which leaves more opportunity for wildflowers and vegetation.

Buch and Johnson also said they have to keep a close eye on pests and illness inside hives. Common in-hive issues include mites and beetles, viruses, bacteria and funguses.

``Anything that puts bees under stress impacts their survival,'' Buch said.

Willow Creek Apiaries has started wintering their bees in Arkansas to help more survive the winter and be in better health to start the next season, Buch said. With the first winter completed, Buch said that seemed to work well for the hives.

Johnson said there are trade-offs to moving the bees over the winter. While it will help more bees survive, he said it's sometimes better for overall hive health to have the weaker bees die.

``Not all death is bad,'' he said.

Fall is harvest time for honey, and Joseph said Iowa beekeepers are getting good quantities.

``We're seeing well above the state's average,'' Joseph said. ``Typically, you get 60 pounds of surplus honey per hive, about a 5-gallon bucket. This year we're seeing 75 to 80 pounds per hive.''

The USDA said in a honey release Aug. 26 that Iowa and Wisconsin report good honey production, while Illinois beekeepers are expecting an average crop. All three states report good demand among consumers and bees in generally good condition.

Joseph said Iowa's bees enjoyed a relatively mild winter and were able to get a good jump on a spring without late freezes.

Both Buch and Johnson expect their honey crop to be on the lower side compared to normal.

``There was too much rain,'' Buch said. ``You can't do much about that.''

Johnson noted that rain dilutes nectar, so the bees have to work twice as hard to make honey. He anticipates getting about 60 to 65 pounds per hive.

However, he said it's important for beekeepers not to take too much honey away from the bees, as they need that honey to feed on in the winter.

Joseph has been surprised at the ``massive increase'' in hobby beekeepers in recent years.

``It's a funny thing, the word is out there that it's harder than ever before, and it's attracting scads of people,'' he said. ``People are stepping up to help the bees.''

Joseph said a person looking to start hobby beekeeping can get a box of bees for about $100. In order to ensure proper techniques and education on bees, Joseph recommended taking a class through the Iowa Honey Producers organization. Schedules can be found on the organization's website.

Bill and Louise Johnson will teach a six-week beekeeping class in Peosta over the winter.

While internet research is helpful, Joseph said the classes will show what beekeeping methods are most effective for this geographic area and establishes a mentoring contact with experienced beekeepers.

``Beekeeping in Iowa is very different from in Arkansas or New Mexico,'' he said. ``It comes down to local information.''