Honey bees are nature's pollinators. In addition to providing us with honey, they help pollinate most of our food crops. But wild honey bee populations are largely extinct, so people have been giving Mother Nature a hand. Nowadays anytime we smell a flower, eat an apple, or even grill a steak, it's not bees we have to thank, but beekeepers. A program in Lorain County has been teaching hundreds of people how to become beekeepers. 90.3's Karen Schaefer has this report.
Karen Schaefer- Ask a beekeeper and probably he'll tell you that apiculture is the most important form of agriculture in the world. It wasn't always true. In the early days of beekeeping, people captured wild swarms and kept them in hives largely for their honey. But today, wild bee populations have largely disappeared, killed off by parasites and disease. So beekeepers have become a vital link in the human food chain.
Denzil St. Clair- My wife's grandfather got me started. I joke and say he gave me two bee colonies as a dowry.
KS- Denzil St. Clair of Spencer has been keeping bees for over thirty years. Although he got his first bees from his father-in-law, most people buy bees from a dealer. But learning how to tend bees takes more than a hive box, ten frames for honey, some workers, drones, and a queen. Six years ago, St. Clair and his fellow enthusiasts from the Lorain County Beepers Association started a class in beginning beekeeping at the local County Extension. Some years, more than a hundred people sign up.
DSC- Most of the people that attend these classes stick with it. I know of a beekeeper in downtown Elyria. He has bees, two colonies of bees on a balcony.
KS- Novice beekeepers attend four weeks of classes, learning about everything from hive tools to honeymaking. Then on a cool spring Saturday, beekeepers assemble at Denzil St. Clair's farm for a field day and a close-up look at bees. Their first lesson - smokers, used to keep bees quiet.
Arnold Bigler of Vermilion is one of several experienced beekeepers who advises beginners.
Arnold Bigler- It's imperative that you sue a smoker if the bees are a little bit mean. I grew up with them, since I was a child. I think I burned my hand on a smoker when I was four years old. Without our beekeeping program and all these new beekeepers that we send to school, there'd be no honey bees, there'd be4 very poor pollination. It's got to be one of the most important things that a retired guy like me can do.
KS- So, how often have you been stung?
AB- I'm not going to tell you.
KS- Today's beekeeping class includes both children and adults from as far away as Toledo. There's even an Amish family who've come to learn more about increasing their honey production. Dressed in white, the class dons hat with veils and protective gloves. Then they're ready to enter the bee field, where about fifty hives are waiting to be split. The instructor explains that splitting one hive into two keeps bees from swarming to a new location.
...because it's a little bit crowded, we're going to remove some of the frames. This is drone larva. I'm going to pass that around, you can take a quick look at it, just don't squash any bees. What we're really looking for is the queen. Now there's a nice frame of honey. There's the queen...
Class instructor Bonnie Pearson of North Ridgeville has only been keeping bees since 1994, but she's traveled the world to learn about apiculture. She sees bees as a lesson in life.
Bonnie Pearson- We spent over a week driving all over Brazil looking to Africanized colonies of honey bees. Then I went to Australia on a honey bee study tour. And I learned a lot more about the planet than just honey bees, too. You know, people have been racing around with their lives and this just lets you slow down a little bit, sit outside, sit next to your hive.
KS- At last it's time for the new beekeepers to get their hands in a hive. This keeper is only a little nervous.
New Beekeeper- Well, let's see, the tension's rising a little bit. But, no, I think it's going to be pretty cool. I mean, there's enough of these people around here that still do it, so it can't be that bad. Talk to me in a few minutes.
KS- So what's it like diving into a box full of honey bees for the first time?
New Beekeeper- I opened it up, I got to pull out the frames and they were holding all these bees, about a thousand bees on this thing and they were moving all around and it was neat! It's something else. It's an adrenaline rush.
KS- In the U.S. today, it's estimated there are nearly 3 million bee hives owned by beekeepers with five or more colonies. In 1998 those same bees pollinated over $15 billion worth of food. That's a lot of bees and a lot of beekeepers. But beekeepers in Lorain County say there's always room for more. In Spencer, I'm Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN.