Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

March 7, 2014

Beekeeper buzzes with advice

Debbie Blank The Herald-Tribune
The Batesville Herald-Tribune

---- — “Who doesn’t love honey?” asked Richard Stewart, who talked about the trials and joys of beekeeping at the eighth annual Journey to Local Sustainable Food Conference, which was sponsored by the Food and Growers Association of Laughery Valley and Environs Feb. 8 at the Batesville Intermediate School cafeteria.

The former package designer is a sixth-generation farmer at Carriage House Farm, North Bend, Ohio. In addition to producing 12,000 pounds of produce, 4,000 pounds of honey and 150 pounds of pollen each year on 300 acres, workers there board horses and give tours so visitors can actually view the hives.

“Bee hives are a fantastic art form,” Stewart remarks. In Europe, they tell Biblical stories and family histories in wood cuts and paintings on the fronts of the insects’ nests.

When tending to bees, “our biggest problem is poor weather conditions,” the farmer contends. “Since I’ve started, no year has been the same as the year previous. Last year was a fantastic year – the summer was awesome. You remember what 2012 was like: It was a horrible drought.”

For novices, he recommends an area club (please see box) and two excellent books, “Beekeeping for Dummies” by Howland Blackiston and Kim Flottum and “Natural Beekeeping” by Ross Conrad, who also can be viewed giving advice online.

Stewart discussed the essentials in getting started. “January and February is a good time to buy bees .... “You want to have two hives.” He explains, “If one is weak, you can pull (bees) from the stronger hive.”

Beginners should count on spending $500-$600. Each hive will cost $200-$300 plus equipment, which includes a bee suit. The speaker suggests partnering with other beekeepers on honey harvesting equipment. Persons can buy used equipment online, but “that can be kind of sketchy. You could be inheriting somebody else’s problems.” Perhaps those bees had a disease and the equipment still is contaminated.

“Finding a good spot for your bees” is vital. A hive should be located near a river or park if possible. A river gives them an ample water supply and they can dine on the nectar of “lots of native weeds and wildflowers.” If possible, the hive should be installed near a row of trees or shrubs to protect it from too much wind. It must have nice sun exposure to encourage bees to fly.

“Residential neighborhoods, believe it or not, produce excellent honey.” He adds, “Clover and dandelions are beneficial to have in your yard” because the insects love them.

The hive should not be close to a large-scale farm so bees are not exposed to pesticides. If that danger is nearby, the speaker suggests giving a jar of honey to the neighbor and finding out when pesticide will be sprayed. “Keep bees locked up” then.

Instead of insecticide or Surround, growers can use a 20 percent acidic herbicide on crops, which will not impact the beneficial insect population.

“If you’re thinking about a commercial operation, it’s important to have multiple yards at least two miles apart,” according to Stewart. When splitting bees, the new hive must be a distance away, or they will return to their original home. “We have three main yards,” each containing 30-40 hives.

Corn and beans do produce nectar for bees. Stewart plants 6 acres of buckwheat and also alfalfa, both “huge nectar sources for pollinators.” He advises, “Let the alfalfa crop bloom” for the bees. Honey made from buckwheat is almost black in color and has a bitter taste, “great for granola.”

Organic or low-spray apple orchards also produce a significant amount. The insects like to be placed near a dairy operation’s forage fields as well.

Basil, mints and edible flowers are all excellent forage crops for bees. When sage is flowering, “the bees have a field day.”

Bees that digest a particular crop make honey with that flavor, from sumac to dill. “Goldenrod produces a honey that has a buttery scent. The hives smell like stinky feet in the fall!”

Sometimes beekeepers are called by area residents who want to get rid of a massive amount of humming bees. “We do a lot of swarm catches,” three to 30 annually. “We stop whatever we’re doing” to capture the bees. “The swarms have a tendency to be fairly healthy … and they’re free!”

Beekeepers spend time mulling over how to keep their insects well. Now Stewart’s bees are in the middle of a “yard experiment.” With a harsh winter predicted, he left twice as much honey as normal in the hives in the hopes that bees will survive. “So far they are doing fairly well.”

Queens don’t play well together. Each wants to dominate and will sting the other. An observant beekeeper will split a queen cell containing battling ones into new bee boxes.

Bees, who have diets of mostly sugar, live about 40 days. “They literally work themselves to death.” Their wings become tattered, so they can’t fly. “When a bee knows it’s distressed or diseased, it flies away to preserve the colony.”

Pests can be hazardous to their health, too. He points out, “Some hives succumb to mites .... Last year we lost 50 percent of our hives,” most in February and March. “Fortunately, you can split bees. You’re able to replace your losses fairly quickly.”

At Carriage House Farm, an integrated pest management program is used. He warns, “Neem oil will kill beneficial insects if not applied properly.” Instead, workers plant microradishes for flea beetle control. The beetles are attracted to the small shoots, which are killed by burning with propane torches. “We go from 100 percent infestation to 10 percent.” Sometimes, nature works in the farmer’s favor. He was hopeful low winter temperatures have killed small hive beetles, which are predators.

In addition to foraging for nectar, bees also hunt for pollen, which they feed their young. Each hive can gather up to 1 pound a year. Each tiny pollen ball represents 5,000 visits to a flower. Different floral sources make distinct pollen colors. For instance, a reddish pollen could have come from spring dogwood blossoms.

Several attendees asked questions. Dave Walsman, Oldenburg, wondered, “How do you go about harvesting the pollen?” A pollen trap can be installed on a hive’s entrance. When a bee crawls through it, pollen is brushed off of its hind legs. He says pollen should be removed daily so it doesn’t get dirty. Chefs and health food store owners “are willing to pay a nice price” for it, up to $50 per pound, because pollen is considered a homeopathic remedy for allergies.

Mary Stephens, Batesville, asked, “What do you think about Mason bees?” Stewart answers, “They’re awesome,” often better at pollinating crops than European honeybees, which were imported here by colonists, who harvested beeswax for candles, but not honey. Green bees, bumblebees and Mason bees are native species.

Nina Muccillo, Buena Vista, asked if Stewart has had problems with raccoons raiding hives. “No, but skunks will lay waste to a bee hive,” he responds. A cunning skunk will scratch the ground outside one. Guard bees come out and the skunk eats them. Hives placed on high racks can deter mammals.

Debbie Blank can be contacted at debbie.blank@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.

How to learn more • Stewart believes being part of a beekeeping community is important so newer members can ask questions, visit hives and be mentored. "The Southeastern Indiana Beekeepers Association (www.indianahoney.org) is one of the best groups in the entire (Cincinnati) region." • Two events are on the schedule this month. Indiana State Apiary inspector Kathleen Prough will discuss "Mistakes new Beekeepers Make and how to Avoid Them" Thursday, March 13, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Hanover College J. Brown Graham Campus Center board room. Then Garry Reeves presents Winter Workshop No. 4 Saturday, March 15, starting at 7 a.m. at his Moores Hill shop. Attendees should bring their safety glasses and materials. Info: kleojag_4@yahoo.com, 812-744-1402 or 812-637-3663.