Keeping bees is a tricky business.
Phil Ebert of Ebert Honey says not only has it been difficult to keep colonies alive for his Lynnville-based honey and beeswax operation, but it’s also a challenge to reproduce bees with desirable characteristics. In addition to environmental and habitat issues, bees and their keepers have a difficult road ahead.
Parasites wipe out hives like a plague. Supplements aren’t nearly as good for bees as they are for natural pollinators. Monitoring mating practices to determine what characteristics colonies may have is also a pain in the abdomen. Especially when Africanized drones are more likely to mate with a queen.
“Unless your area is really saturated with drones with the stats you want, you have the potential to get mean bees. They’re a lot more defensive than you think,” Ebert said with a laugh. “And we also have these parasites that move from bee to bee…
“It’s going to add all the environmental stress that we have, we’re dealing with bees that don’t live as long as they used to. Thirty years ago, if you wintered your bees on March 1, you were done – you did. That’s when they really start to die. So keeping these bees alive is a major problem.
Over the past 50 years, Ebert Honey has lost 50% of his bees despite continuous mite treatment. Most treatments work, Ebert said, and there are ways for beekeepers to check their colonies for mites. But about half of the mites will be in what beekeepers call the brood, or egg, larvae and pupae.
“You have the potential to double your load of mites in a matter of weeks. When that happens, you’re screwed. If you have too many emerging, you get all those damaged bees and all those viruses plaguing them,” said Ebert said “The main result of this is that the bees can’t handle the load of mites they used to.”
While he’s sure the parasites have a negative effect on the amount of honey produced by a colony, Ebert said it doesn’t horribly limit production. But everything has a trade-off in the world of beekeeping. Generally, beekeepers give up some honey production to control mite loads.
Usually, mite problems don’t get worse until the main honeydew is over. Outside of this past year, most fall honey has disappeared, Ebert said.
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig learned about the challenges and successes of Ebert Honey Jan. 28 during his 99-county tour. When it comes to honey, Naig knows that habitat will always be something the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship needs to think about.
“So we’ve talked a lot today about this connection between soil conservation, soil health, water quality, and then what is this opportunity for pollinator habitat – and habitat of all kinds, but particularly pollinator habitat,” Naig said, noting that the agriculture department is still looking to adopt more conversational practices.
When most people think of agriculture, the first thing that probably comes to mind is not bees or honey. Naig said that wasn’t true, because there’s good Iowa-grown honey being sold on grocery store shelves and used by local bakeries and breweries across the state.
“We have a big opportunity in the state of Iowa. Yes, we’re known for the big things we do: corn and soybeans, pork, beef and eggs. But there’s a really big diversity in our agriculture. As we learned today, this particular operation has been around for a long time,” Naig said. “They’re not new to this.”
Ebert Honey was running his first set of colonies in 1980. It was a hobby that turned into a way for Ebert’s children to earn money, and then “it went crazy”. Today, the small crew manages, at most, about 1,800 colonies; each colony can house up to 50,000 to 60,000 bees in the summer.
“There are a lot of little bodies running around,” he said. “Beekeeping is like a disease that you can’t get rid of. I can’t explain the appeal of this one. But I’ve been in this business for over 40 years and I’m still full of energy when I look at these boxes and see all this life going on. But it’s also very discouraging not being able to keep them alive.
It’s only been in the last six years that Ebert Honey has really started noticing the problems with bees, especially keeping them alive.
But the Jasper County beekeeper said the problems started as early as 2005. Ebert hoped his meeting with Naig would spur the establishment of more prairie strips, which Iowa State University says “provide plants to both abundant and diverse” to agricultural landscapes. The bees would appreciate it.
“If we could get something for the roadsides and then if we could establish some of these strips of grassland, that would be a big plus. Getting these bees to get natural pollen is much more nutritious than these supplements we give them,” Ebert said.
Of course, giving bees access to more pollinators isn’t an easy solution either, especially when the protein content of pollen continues to decline due to the effects of global warming. Everything is stacked against the little buzzers.
“It’s a tough world for a bee,” Ebert said.
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or [email protected]