The author of the book Beekeeping for Dummies has 25 years experience raising honeybees.
Interest in beekeeping has grown much more recently, with increasing awareness of what honeybees do and what has been happening to honeybees, along with the increasing popularity of honey.
The American Beekeeping Federation claims that one-third of the food Americans eat — including many non-citrus fruits, seed alfalfa, almonds, seed onions and cucumbers — is pollinated by honeybees.
Two dangers honeybees face — inappropriate use of pesticides, and colony collapse disorder, the cause of which is being researched — therefore could have a major effect on the country’s food supply.
The area’s largest bee operation is Willow Creek Apiaries, which has 1,300 colonies of bees that make honey sold at its retail outlet in Rockville and at area supermarkets and specialty food stores.
On a much smaller scale are local beekeepers like Kirk Osborne of Platteville and Jason Klovning, M.D., who owns land for his bees near Union.
“I like nature, biology; I’m a teacher at heart,” said Osborne, a UW–Platteville police officer who has an education degree and formerly taught middle school current events and biology. “I’ve always been kind of fascinated with honeybees. When you get into beekeeping, you start to see nature differently; you start to notice them in places you didn’t notice before.”
Osborne’s bees are on the roof of his garage. He has hives in two other locations.
Klovning became interested because his uncle and a cousin are beekeepers. “Everything kind of fell together, and I’ve been doing this for three years,” he said. “I don’t intent to turn this into a giant enterprise.”
Many beekeepers purchase bees from southern states. Those bees produce all year around, but are unaccustomed to Midwestern winters.
“A lot of beekeepers make a mistake [in that] they don’t realize how regionalized beekeeping is,” said Osborne.
The mild winter seems to have been beneficial to area honeybees. Bees started appearing with pollen on their legs — possibly from maple trees, Osborne said — on a sunny day in the last week of March.
“This was the first winter I got them to survive,” said Klovning. “The last two winters were just horrid.”
Four of Osborne’s six hives survived this past winter, which is four more than survived the previous two winters. “I know one of the kills was my fault,” he said.
“The nature of bees is they store honey for winter survival. They don’t go dormant, they don’t sleep; they’re alive inside that hive all winter. And they store way more honey than they can use all winter. That’s where beekeepers come in; we give them a nice place to live and we charge rent” by taking their honey.
One reason beekeeping has become popular is because of the increasing popularity of honey, sometimes for invalid reasons.
“It’s not a miracle cure for anything,” said Osborne. “Honeybees are attracted to the same things as humans; unfortunately bees are attracted to flowers that aren’t allergenic. The aroma of honey, the flavor of honey, the color of honey are all dependent on the source.”
“Beekeepers need to practice enough discipline — if I’m taking too much honey, I’m dooming my bees,” said Osborne. “And every season is different. I’m still learning things.”
During the winter, bees cluster and quiver, generating heat up to 90 degrees inside their hives.
Bees generally collect and distribute pollen up to two miles from their hives, although they can range as far as five miles. Two miles “covers about 9,000 acres; it’s a significant area,” said Osborne.
For that reason, Osborne is skeptical of claims of “organic” honey, because “you never know what they’re getting into.”
Osborne has a pollinator garden on the south side of his property. “Honeybees will be dancing in that garden from July to early September,” he said.
Klovning plans on planting clover, borage and other plants on his property later this spring.
Klovning purchased land for his bees because “it’s hard to find people willing to keep them, unless you raise them.” He has another hive near Platteville Golf & Country Club, with five other hives planned.
The first year Osborne started raising bees, he got 235 pounds of honey from two hives. “For first-year hives, that’s kind of unheard of,” he said. “The last few years, it’s actually dropped off; there’s been more beekeepers that have sprouted up.”
One reason may be pesticide use, or improper pesticide use.
“The last couple of years I can tell you when farmers are spraying in the fields,” he said. “I’ve seen healthy colonies of 40,000 drop to 10,000.
“Something beekeepers tend to not acknowledge is we need those pesticides. The way monoculture is taking place these days, if you have a pest, you can wipe an entire corp out.”
Other reasons for Osborne’s dropping honey production may be “the weather’s been pretty funny … it’s complicated. I see it as a little of everything; it’s a bunch of little things that are having an impact.”
One reality of raising honeybees is honeybees will sting you, most often when the beekeeper is gathering honey.
“I get stung a lot,” said Osborne, who has been stung as many as eight times in one day. “I’m invading their home. A lot of people like to use the word ‘aggressive’ with bees; the right word is ‘defensive.’ I have photos of me and my kids out there, and it’s fine.
“If I’m digging around in the hive, you’re going to get stung. As far as they’re concerned, I’m a big, ugly, white bear, and I’m stealing their honey. If you’re barefoot in the yard, you’re going to step on one, and because you stepped on one, it’s going to give you the business.”
Klovning developed an allergy to bee stings, which was treated by 10 shots in one day.
“I got stung several times before it got to the point” of more severe reactions, he said. He said 50 to 60 Americans die of stings from bees, fire ants and other insects, about the same number of Americans killed by lightning strikes each year.
“Hornets and wasps are the jerks of nature, and they can sometimes be territorial, and that’s really a problem in Platteville,” said Osborne. “If it looks sleek and shiny, it’s probably bad news. Honeybees are herbivores; they don’t cause harm to anything, plant or animal, unless they’re threatened.”
Osborne, who helped Klovning start beekeeping, is advising UW–Platteville students who are trying to raise bees on campus. He said the best way to help bees is to not use pesticide, along with planting maples and “flowering trees. Trees, pound for pound, will give out a lot more pollen than flowers.”