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What's the buzz all about?

Tapping into local beekeeping, and what's buzzing about it

By Miriam Orr

You may remember hearing the term "buzzing around like bees in a hive," or "busy bee," in reference to a busy schedule. Maybe you've even said them yourself as you're late for work and rushing out the door, or piling kids in a minivan.

Maybe you've had the talk about "the birds and the bees" or, maybe you remember the British music phenomenon, Sting –  or, perhaps Muhammed Ali's "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" boxing analogy comes to mind. Whichever way you cut it, you've heard about the little buzzing fascinations that are, indeed, bees.

But have you really ever really stopped to think about them?


Meet the Beekeepers

For local individuals Gregg Hermerding and John Jarvela, bees are not just afterthoughts or objects of metaphor. They are a passion, and they are investments made for not just a better backyard, but hopefully someday, a better world.

Both Hermerding and Jarvela are Buffalo beekeepers. John has been keeping bees for four years, while Gregg has almost finished his first year. While they share the same passion and interest, they came to the hobby in very different ways.

Jarvela discovered his interest in bees through his son-in-law, who was keen on learning about beekeeping as a pastime. Jarvela had wanted something in common with his son-in-law, so he decided to read up on beekeeping, which eventually led him to attend a beginner's class at the University of Minnesota, entitled "Beekeeping in Northern Climates."

Hermerding, however, got involved with beekeeping after retiring from teaching in Monticello. He attended a community education class, thinking that beekeeping would be something to keep him busy during his retirement.

After hearing statements, much like "everyone who is interested should learn to try," both Hermerding and Jarvela decided to give beekeeping a go. What would lie ahead would be much research, and a lot of dedication to the effort.


Buzzword: Beekeeping

Bees get a bad rap. Hermerding and Jarvela explained that so often people "lump bees into one category," and they have a bad stereotype. Most often the first thing people think of when they hear about the black-and-yellow buzzers is that they sting, make honey, and help the flowers.

But, mostly, people focus on the stinging part. Gregg and John want to iterate, however, that we are talking about honeybees, and not bumblebees and other members of the classification.

"Bees, wasps, hornets – people stereotype them as one entity, and honeybees get a bad rap," Gregg Hermerding said. "We like honeybees. They are gentle and docile insects. They are not aggressive, and people just don't know that. There's a big misunderstanding."


"Everyone benefits from bees, and we don't want to have the issue that comes if they all happen to disappear."

    -Gregg Hermerding


Beekeeping in the metro area has issues with broadcasting awareness, says Jarvela and Hermerding. It's a hobby that is very under the radar, and there are more people into the pastime than one would imagine. It begs the questions, "What makes beekeeping so interesting?" and "Why do people do it?"

"It's fascinating," John Jarvela concluded. "No one bee can do what a hive does together. They need the entire colony – it needs the whole organization to get the job done, just to be able to survive."

Hermerding and Jarvela have studied the art of beekeeping on their own. They've attended seminars, made contacts, and read up on the practice through books and online research.

Jarvela stated that, "You need to have a good understanding of honeybees before you set out to keep them, because they're very intricate beings. Their lifestyle and existence is very specific."


The Basics

The first step to understanding beekeeping as a practice is the cost evaluation. It takes money to invest in the hobby, and Hermerding  and Jarvela made that very clear.

Hermerding  said, "You don't go into keeping bees to make money. Not unless you're a corporation. If you do, you will never get your money back. This is expensive to set up, and most often it is very unpredictable. You do it because you love it, and you do it knowing that you're giving back to the earth and for the fascination."

Between investing in hives, the proper clothing and protective equipment, and the bees themselves, the cost starts to calculate quickly.

Buying the insects themselves, one purchases by the pound. A beginning "starter pack" of bees guarantees a queen, since she is necessary to help the hive survive, along with worker bees. The bees come, typically, from California or Texas, though you can purchase them on a local level.

For two pounds, the cost is roughly $95.00, but can range up to $130.00. Purchasing, most often, depends on the availability of queens.

For a basic cost analysis, the hive boxes themselves cost approximately $250.00. To have an adequate number of bees, investing in $100.00 worth of the insects, and then allotting another $100.00 to $150.00 for protective equipment, you have a fair idea of how much "start-up" actually costs.

Season plays a large role in when you can begin keeping bees, too. A typical season is the end of March and early April to begin, and ends in November – or, whenever the weather stays consistently at or below 50 degrees, since bees cannot fly in that weather. 

"It's best to make sure hives have a lot of sun," Hermerding  commented, "and that there's a water source nearby – preferably not swimming pools. Protection from the elements is also key in choosing where you want to keep your bees."

Another staple of beekeeping is knowing how much honey your bees produce – and knowing when you can take it, and when to leave it alone, since bees need their honey to survive over the winter months.

"Bees require their honey to eat over winter," Jarvela stated. "They'll eat it over the cold months when there's nothing to do. Sometimes hives get an upwards of 50,000 bees, so you can imagine they require a lot of honey. Honey for you is just a bonus – it's not a given that there'll be a lot for you after a season."

A typical hive needs 75 to 100 pounds of honey to survive a winter. Jarvela explained that they survive the cold by eating honey and shivering, which then, in turn, makes them breathe harder, and the warmth of their breath and the friction of their bodies keep them, and their queen, warm all year round.


"They really are truly astounding creatures."

              -John Jarvela


It's not guaranteed that they'll survive, however. For instance, Hermerding  lost his hives this year, due to the fact that they froze – even after he coated the outside of the hives with protective layering to keep out the cold.

"Sometimes you just get unlucky," Hermerding  said. "You just have to start fresh and hope you figure out what happened."

Preparation for winter begins as early as September. "You begin to evaluate your honey amounts, and determine if they've produced enough for the winter months. If not, you have to feed them honey so they survive," Jarvela explained. "It takes some knowledge and basic know-how. That's where the research comes in." He continued to explain that most often, bees will need honey in the spring, and one can determine if they'll need to be fed by the fall, before the season strikes.

"What people don't understand is that bees do not hibernate," Hermerding  said, "The queen bee needs her daughters and worker bees to keep her alive, all the time. That takes upwards of thousands of bees to maintain her life."

Once the queen dies, Jarvela iterated that the hive itself will die, since the queen constantly births new bees to work, collect, and maintain the hive.


Population concerns

A 50,000 populace drops quickly, though – especially in recent years as chemicals have started taking over crops and flowers, and disease has stung the bee population.

One such ailment is the Verroa destructor mite, which targets bees in their brood cells before they are born, and know exactly when they are in their most vulnerable stage, called "pre-capping," in which the cells where larvae are deposited are not capped over with a protective wax. The mite knows exactly when this stage occurs, and will enter the larvae and attack the growing bee before it is even done developing.

"These mites literally drain the life out of the bees," Jarvela explained. "They suck their blood and weaken them to the point of where they will eventually die, and they're smart enough to know when that will be and can transfer to other bees before that happens. They are very contagious and almost impossible to cure."

These mites are difficult to cure – treatment needs to be aggressive, but not to the point of killing the bees themselves. Treatments are anywhere from medication to chemical sprays, though many of them are not adequate.

Though Jarvela and Hermerding are not experts, they've heard it said that it is predicted that within 10 years, every bee in the United States will suffer with this mite issue, since they are easily passed and reproduce at astounding rates. What's even worse, the mites can become immune to treatments, and when they do detach, they leave open wounds on bees that never heal and become even more susceptible to disease.

"It really is a terrible issue," Hermerding  commented. "It's best to check on your bees every so often to see if they have the mites, and if they do, see how they are spreading. Treating is very difficult and involved, and needs to be consistent."

While bee populations spike in the summer, they can drop quickly during the fall, mostly due to mites and the fact that a bee's life expectancy is short. Fall mite checks are a regular part of the procedure, Jarvela and Hermerding  state.

What doesn't help the decreasing population issue are pesticides, crop dustings, and genetically modified foods – they all play parts in decreased bee populations, and eventually, will lead to a critical pollination issue, which will affect the globe. 


Why Beekeeping?

Jarvela and Hermerding  both stated that while not everyone is cut out for beekeeping, you never truly know if you don't try. Keeping bees is not something everyone is particularly good at or "have the knack for," but the decreasing population of bees and pollination is an issue everyone should be concerned with.

"We're not saying that everyone should keep bees," Jarvela said, "but, if you're interested, at least try one year. You may find you like it."

Hermerding  stated, "If you want to help, and are concerned about pollination, plant flowers without herbicides. Make sure your crops aren't dusted with bad chemicals – don't spray hives, or flower gardens, or vegetables. Everyone benefits from bees, and we don't want to have the issue that comes if they all happen to disappear."

Hermerding  continued, "It's a mixture of science and art. The science of watching and learning; the art because it's unpredictable and beautiful. The creation inside of a hive, and the benefits the world reaps from pollination, is a truly amazing thing – and it is largely due to bees and the work they do. One little animal plays such a huge part."

Hermerding and Jarvela highly recommend researching, and seeking out fellow beekeepers to grow one's knowledge and understanding of the trade. They recommend educating children, families, and the community about honeybees and their benefits, and knowing the difference between the "not-so-aggressive" bees and the more-aggressive species, because honeybees don't deserve the bad reputation for the hard work they do.

"They truly are astounding animals," Jarvela concluded. "Their colonies are so intricate and fascinating. You never truly know everything about them."



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