There are few people on the planet who don’t like honey. And the more one learns about how honey is made, the more fascinated one becomes with honeybees. Add to this fascination the fact that colonies of honeybees are collapsing all over North America -jeopardizing the pollination of every plant from the smallest strawberry to the largest apple tree -and you begin to have local people, like Harold and Alice Keiner, taking matters into their own hands.
Honeybees are interesting creatures, and they serve a very important purpose in the growth of fruits and vegetables. It was because of the vital role they play in the pollination of plants that Harold Keiner of Keiner’s Nursery began to raise honeybees. Harold took some courses about raising the insects about five years ago and prepared an area near his nursery for the bees.
“We had the plants and it was a good tie-in with the nursery,” said Keiner, who explained that there are three different types of honeybees: the female worker bees which are hatched from fertilized eggs from the queen and whose job is to clean the hive and make the honey; the male drones which are hatched from unfertilized queen eggs and whose sole job is to mate with the queen, and the queen herself, who is the only female bee to mate. The queen can mate with up to fifteen drones and lay up to 1500 eggs a day for 2-3 years as the sperm from that event is stored in her body. A queen can mate with drones of several different hives, making a genetic mixture that can help the hive survive.
Keiner relates that his main goal to get each hive through the winter, which unfortunately doesn’t always happen. He makes sure to leave the bees with enough honey and sugar to feed themselves and the queen until spring. Sometimes bacteria or disease will decimate the hive, and sometimes the entire hive will simply leave and colonize elsewhere. Once spring arrives and the hive starts to grow, Keiner has to prepare new spaces for the new offshoot colonies to flourish –otherwise he finds them in trees or in inconvenient areas around his home. It is a fairly demanding hobby.
“The bees have monopolized more of my time than the nursery has, but I enjoy it,” said Keiner “It’s a challenge. We give them a place to live and hope that they like it and can survive.”
An average life span of a worker bee and drone is just a little over a month, and Keiner says that the Varroa Mite and various bacteria can always wreak havoc on a bee population. The mite carries certain diseases that can make the bee unable to fly, and lethal bacteria can be spread from hive to hive. He also cites pesticides as a major problem in bee keeping, and that the cheapest and easiest way for homeowners and local governments to solve a problem, such as gypsy moths, may not be the best way.
“People need to be more selective about the types and amounts of pesticide they use,” explained Keiner. “There’s always going to be residue hanging out on plants and trees from those sprays and the insects pick that up. It’s not a good thing.”
Keiner says he never used pesticides on his nursery plants, but has since changed the types of plants he raises to all native species. Keiner stressed that it is the plants native to this area that have the pollen and nectar counts that the bees need, unlike the hybrids and non native species that, while pretty to look at, serve no real purpose to the area wildlife population.
“Everybody wants the big colors in their garden,” noted Keiner, who used the Purple Coneflower as an example “There are so many varieties and colors, but native plants are better.”
Because there was so much to learn and so much to control when it came to raising bees and processing the honey, Keiner wondered if he could find others who were interested in beekeeping around the area. He put out a call to meet in August 2015 and nearly fifty people from around the area showed up to share ideas and techniques. Currently there are approximately seventy people on the email list from as far away as the Back Mountain, and about a quarter of those folks come to meetings regularly. The group started visiting people’s bee yards and learning for each other’s experiences, both good and bad.
Some may be surprised to know that there are eight in the Mountaintop Area alone who have joined the information group, and that is not an exhaustive list of those who even keep bees here on the mountain. There are no dues to be involved, anyone interested just needs to show up.
“You can learn so much from each other’s experiences,” he said. “We’re just a group who networks with each other and helps each other learn as much as we can about the honeybee.”
Keiner says that there is always something new that pops up regarding honeybees or colony collapse or environmental circumstances that can help or harm the colony, and all of those variables can affect different hives in different ways.
“If somebody asks you a question about bees, usually the first thing you say is ‘it depends.’” joked Keiner “It depends on what you’re doing and what they’re doing. What may work at one apiary may not work at another. They’re families and like us, those families are all different.”
Since bees are considered livestock, some townships may require your property to be zoned agricultural in order to keep bees, others just need the township’s permission. Keiner noted it’s important to check with your township rules before pursuing beekeeping. One thing that nobody should be afraid of, however, is getting stung or attacked by a colony of honeybees. Most hives go unnoticed by neighbors and passers by as they are non aggressive unless threatened.
“They’re right in our own back yard and you don’t even realize they’re here. Honeybees won’t sting you unless you threaten them. They are not dangerous. They aren’t a wasp or a yellow jacket; a honeybee will die after she stings you,” explained.
According to Keiner, this year, the group is going to focus on how to help new beekeepers get acclimated to the process through videos and discussions. They will be meeting January 19 at 7pm at the Rice Township municipal building and will discuss a video from Dr. Jamie Ellis from the University of Florida about the biology of the honeybee. Anyone interested in beekeeping is welcome to attend.