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The buzz about bees

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 8, 2013 - Jerry Hayes’ workers are every boss’ dream. They’re productive team players, never engage in idle conversation, don’t require overtime and absenteeism is near zero.

Pretty good for a workforce of nearly half a million.

“I’m the largest employer in Franklin County,” Hayes said with a chuckle.

Of course, Hayes’ employees don’t require much oversight. As the old saying goes, they’re busy as bees – something that comes pretty naturally to them.

“Honeybees pollinate a third of the food you and I eat every day,” said the Gray Summit man, who has been tending these fascinating creatures for about three decades. “Even after all of these years, I still wake up every morning and say, ‘Isn’t this insect cool in what it does?’”

Increasingly, a lot of people are thinking that, both around the country and in the St. Louis area where beekeeping is a growing pastime for amateurs and hobbyists looking for a unique and interesting sideline that provides both recreation and a bit of extra cash. Given his extensive history with the insect, Hayes may be more than a hobbyist but he’s not a big-time producer. His half dozen colonies can produce as many as 50,000 to 80,000 European honeybees during the peak of the season, but the industrial honeymakers typically have hundreds of hives and many millions of tiny workers.

United States Department of Agriculture figures estimate that the nation produced about 148 million pounds of honey in 2011 from enterprises with five or more colonies. Approximately 8,000 such colonies were thought to be operating in Missouri producing some 344,000 pounds of honey.

There is a surprising buzz of activity locally as well. The Missouri State Beekeepers Association lists beekeeping groups in St. Louis, Union, Hillsboro and St. Peters.

“It’s grown quite a bit in the last five years,” said Robert Sears, head of the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association. “Our club went from 35 or so active members to 300. These beekeepers are principally hobbyists who are doing it on a small scale for their own enjoyment but it’s been a tremendous benefit to the honeybee population in the region and that, in turn, has benefited the flowering trees, shrubs and other plants that rely on pollinators for their continued survival.”

Today and tomorrow, Sears’ group will host its sixth annual beekeeping workshop at Maritzin Fenton. The first year, they held it in Clayton and expected perhaps 15 people. They got 75 and had to turn away participants. The maximum enrollment for the beginners course of 125 had been reached by the time registration closed last week. Dozens more will arrive for the more advanced course.

Hayes estimates that as many as 1,500 to 2,000 people in the metro area could be keeping bees. He said figures have been growing nationwide. When he was chief of the apiary section of the Florida Department of Agriculture nine years ago, they had 800 registered beekeepers. When he left the job last year, it was 3,000.

“Beekeeping has blossomed and bloomed not only here but everywhere across the United States as people have become aware of how important honeybees are to our food production and our environment,” said Hayes, who produces about 450 to 600 pounds of honey each year.

Collapsing colonies

But if it is the best of times for beekeeping, it is also the worst. In recent years, a strange phenomenon has been sweeping the quirky industry and no one really knows quite what to make of it. Known as Colony Collapse Disorder, the problem has claimed a significant number of hives from many beekeepers.

Hayes recalls first seeing it during his time in Florida when a commercial beekeeper started losing hives.

“His bees were simply leaving,” remembered Hayes. “They were just gone. He didn’t see dead bees on the ground or anything else.”

The exact mechanism remains a mystery but Hayes said that much of the suspicion falls on an Asian mite known as the Varroa destructor. Nearly microscopic, the oblong-shaped blood-sucking parasite can be quite harmful to European bees, which have not evolved a defense against it.

Hayes notes the inherent difficulty of using pesticides in such a situation.

“It’s kind of crazy when you think about it,” he said. “You are trying to kill a bug on a bug and you put pesticides in a honeybee colony in order to kill the little bug but not hurt the big bug.”

Hayes is right in the middle of the challenge to find alternatives. He studies honeybees at Monsanto, which is working on locating solutions to the problem in which other factors may play a role as well, including toxins in the environment and other parasites.

In the meantime, the devastation has at least stabilized to some degree with some commercial producers losing as much as 30 percent of their colonies.

“A couple decades ago that was 5 to 10 percent,” said Hayes. “It’s just one of those things that until we figure out how to get rid of this mite safely and not chemically, it’s probably going to hover around that number.”

For the love of bees

Despite the worry, John Pashia, an Affton resident, said Colony Collapse Disorder doesn’t affect him that much.

“It’s a problem you’ll see more so with commercial beekeepers than with hobbyists,” said the 38 year old. “They say in an average year, you’ll lose about 20 percent of your hives to normal die off and Varroa mites and other problems you might encounter. Personally, I’m way below that.”

Pashia, who raises bees on his father’s property in Pevely, has about seven hives now but hopes to have 10 by this spring. The hobby is nothing new to him as his dad was a beekeeper and still loves helping with the insects. Pashia said his visits to work on the hive remain a father-son bonding experience.

“I grew up with there being 20 to 25 colonies in the yard all the time,” he said. “It’s just part of what you consider normal.”

It’s also a vacation from the stresses of the world.

“They are very therapeutic in the sense that we’re so busy with our lives that when you finally get an opportunity to do something on your own and you are focused on the job at hand, it’s very relaxing,” he said.

Pashia believes the hobby is attracting new converts. He remembers just a few years ago when getting beekeeping equipment meant a long trek to Hamilton, Ill., a Mississippi River town just across from Keokuk, Iowa. Today, items are available locally.

Ralph Samples IV of Imperial caught the bug – pun intended – more than a dozen years ago but it wasn’t until about 2008 that he, in his words, “started to go crazy.” Until then, he was a single-hive guy. Now, the regional sales manager for a truck leasing company has 26 colonies spread across his yard and three other locations including Hillsboro, Town & Country and the Tower Grove Park area.

“What really got me engaged and kept me engaged was that it’s not just animal husbandry,” he said. “It touches on all kinds of interesting aspects of science and it keeps my attention every day. It’s about caring for animals but it also has to do with genetics, botany, business, behaviorism, disease.”

Samples, 45, said that when he started out, there was a general decline in beekeeping, which shrunk in popularity over the years. During the Great Depression, he said that it was not unusual for a small farmer to have a sideline in honey.

“As family farms went away and became more corporate farms, those became more specialized and the number of beekeepers fell dramatically,” he said.

However, Samples said activity has picked up considerably here in recent years with lots of beginners taking up the hobby.

“You meet a really eclectic group of people in beekeeping,” he said. “You get stereotypical tree huggers and people that are more agrarian farmers, CSA [crop sharing association] people. The guy who heads our club is an attorney. You meet a lot of engineers.”

You also meet a lot of bees of course; however, that can present a bit of a challenge for those in an urban or suburban environment.

“You are in a lot tighter proximity,” he said. “Out in Imperial, we’ve got 47 acres so I can do whatever I want and my neighbors aren’t going to be bothered by it. It’s a whole different scenario in Tower Grove.”

Part of the issue lies in preventing swarms, a phenomenon in which a hive spawns a new queen and the old one takes off with most of the workforce and congregates nearby as it prepares to find a new home. This is a normal and relatively harmless aspect of bee life. But it can look ominous to uninitiated neighbors who may suddenly have tens of thousands of stinging guests taking up temporary residence in a backyard tree or on the side of a house.

Other problems can present themselves as well.

You have to really be cognizant of the space between buildings, where the hive is, whether it is visible to passersby,” Samples said. “Vandalism is a concern.”

The website for the St. Charles County-based Three Rivers Beekeepers club said that most municipalities allow a few hives on one’s property and the recent decline in honeybee population has caused some relaxation of the rules. It advises newbies to check local ordinances in their area.

Yet, while city residents may not always adjust well to buzzing neighbors, the bees themselves do just fine in populated locales. In fact, Samples said bees are actually healthier in urban environments than in rural areas. The pickings are simply better in cities.

“The benefits are that there is a much more varied amount of floral sources in town than there are in a monoculture like a corn and soybean farm,” he said. “There’s plenty of pollen when those crops are in bloom but it’s really a singular diet that’s not so good for the bees healthwise.”

Then again, there are some who hope that bees can be good for the community's health as well. You can certainly count Philip Minden in that category.

“There’s a lot of research that’s been done on the value of entrepreneurship education, especially on kids from underserved areas,” he said. “It helps them to really raise their personal aspirations about higher education, employment and even starting their own business.”

Minden, a graduate of Washington University, is a volunteer who helped write the business plan for Sweet Sensations, a unique startup that last year took top honors and a $35,000 prize from the YouthBridge Social Enterprise and Innovation Competition for its concept to educate teens in the Greater Ville neighborhood on the city’s north side about the basics of entrepreneurship and sustainability through beekeeping. Minden said the plan is to have three colonies tended by kids aged 14 -18 with the honey and wax going to develop personal care products from candles and soaps to lip balm. Those can be sold at farmers' markets and similar outlets.

Minden keeps seven hives himself near the city’s Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. The program is already underway with the students developing products, though they aren’t yet taking care of the bees themselves. They will be attending the beekeeping event today at Maritz to learn how.

“They sold their first product before Christmas – local honey,” Minden said. “They sold out their first batch.”

‘Better than a Corvette’

Madonna Bogacki picked up the bee habit from her husband. The pair started managing the insects about a year and a half ago.

“I love it. I call it ... my midlife crisis,” she said. “It’s much better than a Corvette.”

And more interesting as well.

“I think it’s very humbling to stand in front of  this box of insects that have an entire community going on with one in charge and everyone has a job and cooperates with each other,” said the South Countian who keeps the bees at a country club in Creve Coeur. “They just work together so well. It’s absolutely amazing to me.”

Bogacki, 58, said her young grandchildren love working with the bees so she recently got them a bee suit for Easter. She takes her new hobby quite seriously, even going so far as to name her queens with such appropriate monikers as Cleopatra and, in a nod to more modern royalty, Queen Latifah.

“It’s just another extension of what I can pass on to my grandkids to try and teach them how important bees are and not to be afraid of insects in this world,” she said.

Not that it’s been all smiles. Just eight weeks into her first hive, Bogacki arrived at the colony to find about 10,000 dead bees out front while thousands of others stumbled drunkenly in the grass.

“I stood there and I cried,” she said.

However, the culprit turned out not to be Colony Collapse Disorder. Rather, the bees, which can forage up to two miles in search of food had apparently found some flora treated with insecticide that accounted for the mass die off.

But it shows just how personally devotees take their love of bees. Pashia, from Affton, puts it simply.

“They are some of the most fascinating creatures on the planet,” he said. “The more you read, the more fascinated you become with them and the more you realize how complex they are.”

David Baugher is a freelance writer.