by Marnie Record
Illinois beekeepers have long faced the challenge of living in a state more than 50 percent covered with corn and soybeans, plants with no food value for the bees. And it’s not getting any easier.
“Verroa mites are the number one problem for honey bees,” Dr. Stewart Jacobson, a local beekeeper and Community Education instructor at Lincoln Land Community College, explains. Verroa mites are parasites that attach to the back of the bee and to the pupae which beekeepers call “brood.” They suck the blood from both the adults and developing brood which weakens and shortens the bee’s life.
Jacobson adds, “The primary damage these mites cause is transmitting a number of viruses. One of the most deadly viruses causes visibly deformed wings. Some beekeepers look for these deformities to identify the parasite’s presence in a hive. More progressive ones monitor their colonies for mites using powdered sugar to dislodge the mites from a sample of 300 bees taken from a comb with developing brood. Unless checked, Varroa mites can kill entire colonies in a year or less.”
Typical losses when Jacobson started keeping bees in the 1970s were 10 percent of one’s colonies. Now, 30 percent is on the low end.
Jacobson, armed with a doctorate in biology, began buying breeder queens with a trait for Verroa sensitive hygene (VSH) 10 years ago and now breeds them for himself and others. VSH bees can reduce Varroa mite populations without chemical treatments, the primary alternative, by building a colony of resistant bees. Dr. Jacobson points to the success of the VSH line by noting that according to USDA data, Illinois beekeepers lost 60 percent of their bees in the winter of 2015-2016 while he lost none. Jacobson says, “Using Varroa resistant queens is the best single way to reduce winter colony losses.”
Scott Carter, president of the Lincoln Land Bee Keepers Association, mentions the small hive beetle as another significant pest that came about in the last two decades. Large beetle populations can quickly lay an enormous amount of eggs. Within 24 hours, these eggs hatch into very small larvae that begin to feed immediately on the honey and pollen stores, as well as on the developing brood. The larvae can deplete the stored honey causing the adult honey bees to abandon the hive.
Carter says Illinois beekeepers are now watching for the spread of European Foulbrood (EFB), a bacterial disease that spreads most commonly through the use of infected equipment. Carter notes, “Beekeepers have to continually adapt to their surroundings and new issues to meet the needs of the bees.”
The sharp decline in bee populations headlining global news the past three years led to a doubling of membership locally in the Lincoln Land Bee Keepers Association. Carter says, “It’s the hobbyist bee keepers keeping things going. People care. They know we can’t live without the bees and want to do something about it.”
Of the 100 crops that account for 90 percent of the food eaten around the globe, 71 rely on bee pollination, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Approximately one third of our diet is directly or indirectly dependent on bee pollination. This includes fruits and vegetables, as well as many nuts, oil-seed crops, herbs and spices, and much of the forage that is needed for the beef and dairy industries.
The California almond crop alone requires 1.3 million colonies of bees each year – approximately half of our nation’s managed honey bees – which must be transported into the growing area each spring. A journey which Jacobson notes “is particularly stressful with not enough natural food so keepers have to feed artificial food which is not as nutritious. Disease spreads quickly under these circumstances.”
To combat the complexities of modern beekeeping, both Jacobson and Carter suggest education as a means of beating the odds. Jacobson along with longtime beekeeper Fred Gerberding teach regular classes at LLCC through the Community Education department using hands-on methods as a result of a hive donation from Dr. Anne Miller, a local beekeeper who moved away from the area. One course coming up in June focuses on recognizing queens with good brood patterns, diseases and Varroa mites, and the management procedures for post-nectar flow. The next course covers honey extraction, and then in August comes fall hive management. Such seasonally-focused classes give participants the information and tools they need to be successful beekeepers year-round.
The Master Beekeeper Program developed by the University of Missouri Extension recently became available through the University of Illinois Extension for Illinois residents interested in learning beekeeping. The training and certification program will help beekeepers develop their skills through six levels of competency: beginning beekeeper, apprentice beekeeper, journeyman beekeeper, junior master beekeeper, master trainer beekeeper, and certified master beekeeper. The program requires a six-year commitment for completion and the guidance of a mentor.
Carter shares, “The biggest problem new beekeepers face is being able to keep bees alive due to a lack of education and the complicated nature of beekeeping.” The Master Beekeeper Program was designed to address new techniques, equipment, potential problems, and tips and tricks to improve beekeeping skills during a time of significant decline in honey bee populations and an increase in the awareness of the important role bees play in pollinating crops.
Outside of keeping bees, homeowners can educate themselves about insecticides and pesticides used on lawns and landscaped areas. While low level exposures may not always kill bees directly, they may impact their ability to forage for nectar, learn and remember where flowers are located, reduce the health of their immune system, and impair their ability to find their way home to the nest or hive. Pesticide products containing neonicotinoids are of particular concern as they remain in both plants and soils long after sprayed, rendering your garden toxic to bees and other beneficial insects for the entire growing season.
Illinois farmers can look to examples in other parts of the world taking action for the bees. European farmers have begun planting flower strips amongst their crop fields to provide food and support the growth of healthy bee populations. There is also a movement among almond farmers in California toward interplanting plants that provide pollen amongst the almond trees.
It’s commonly stated that one of every three bites of food we eat depends on a pollinator, placing bees and their care at the center of all our lives.
For more information on beekeeping classes, contact LLCC Community Education at 786.2432.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Value-Added Local Food, Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.