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The importance of beekeeping: Crops could suffer without pollinators

By Toni W. Riley

When was the last time you were sitting on your patio and noticed a bee nestled inside a flower, emerging with its legs covered in pollen? Chances are it has been a while.

The population of bees, native and domestic has dropped drastically in the last decade due to bee colony collapse. This has caused a decrease in these mighty pollinators and a decrease in the production of fruit and vegetables. One of every three bites of food comes from plants pollinated by honeybees and other pollinators.

Whole Foods Market took the opportunity to educate their customers on how a decrease in bees might affect their lives. The produce team pulled 237 of 453 products from their shelves– 52 percent of the normal product mix in the department to show what products depended on bees. Among the removed products were some of the most popular produce items including apples, peppers and melons.

According to local beekeeper, Jim Hazelrigg, who is the past president of the Kentucky Beekeepers Association and currently serving as the President of the Pennyrile Beekeeping Association, beekeeping is definitely on the rise, especially for the hobbyist and particularly because of the publicity from bee colony collapse.

He says that the cause of the collapse is a very hotly debated topic. His theory is that the decrease in bee pollination and hive collapse is primarily due to a perfect storm — insecticides from the agricultural community, beekeepers’ stress on the bees and disease.

Large commercial beekeepers will transport their bees 3,000 miles to pollinate almonds in California. This is the livelihood of those beekeepers, but bees get stressed when transported.

The varroa mite, a parasite, is not native to the United States that attracts the bees. Beekeepers use chemicals to kill the varroa mites. Hazelrigg says the beeswax is like a sponge and it holds all the chemicals that the hive has been exposed to, even chemicals from the plant the bee has pollinated and the chemicals soak into the beeswax and harm and also kill the bees. Hazelrigg says that there has been extensive study about bee colony collapse and there has been no definitive decision on the case but a number of things — stress, weather, chemicals and disease — are the leading indicators.

He encourages those interested in beekeeping to do three things:

  1. Read about bees from reliable sources such as State Beekeeping Associations, Extension publications and reputable producers
  2. Join a beekeeping association and get a mentor who can advise and direct the new beekeeper.
  3. He cautions that beekeeping is really “beekeeping” and not just setting out a hive having bees come and go.

“Beekeeping is like any type of animal production,” Hazelrigg said. “While they may be an insect, they have to have proper nutrition, water and protection from diseases and weather. Gone are the days when a person can sit out a hive and come back and collect honey. My grandfather would set out a hive behind the barn and go back in the spring and fall and collect the honey — those days are no more.”

Keeping bees is a sizable investment and a good deal of work. Purchasing a nuclear colony of bees, which includes a fully pregnant queen as well as her workers and drones, runs in the $120 range. A hive with two brood boxes and two supers will cost over $200.

Hazelrigg advises new beekeepers to start with two hives and to compare what is going on in each hive. The beekeeper will need a pair of specially made gloves, a helmet, veil, hive tool, smoker and a nutrient feeding solution for the first year. Total cost: nearly $800.

There will be no honey collected the first year the hives are set up because all the honey workers make the first season will be for their own consumption and even then the beekeeper will have to “feed” the brood to sustain it through the first year. He notes that many people want to “have” bees but if a person wants to be a successful beekeeper, they must care for and be involved with the bees or lose their investment.

Hazelrigg finds a great deal of joy in keeping bees. He says there is nothing more fascinating than the organization of bees. He explained that the bees function in two ways, as the individual work of each bee and in the function of bees within the colony.

For an insect, they have a highly sophisticated culture. When the worker bees are born they do things inside the hive such as nurse and feed the queen. As they grow and mature, they take on more responsibility and go out of the hive to become foragers and water gathers to support the hive.

One of the most remarkable things about bees is that they will not cap the honey until it is 18 percent moisture. How they determine that exact amount is simply amazing.

When there is an abundance of nectar, like this spring, the water content will be too high and the bees will make their own version of a cooling tower. The bees spread water over the comb and use their wings to cool and dehydrate the honey.

Hazelrigg noted that as he was pulling his honey this spring he thought it was a little thin, meaning to high water content, but when he checked the bees knew best and it was right on the 18 percent amount.

“I check my hives everyday,” Hazelrigg said. “It’s a wonderful peaceful feeling to watch them work and know what’s going on in the hive.”

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