A well-known battle cry of thousands of environmentalists may be “Save the Bees,” but in reality, the bees that we know and love aren’t doing as bad as we may think. But that’s not to say that bees have a particularly easy life. From pesticides to viruses to attacks on their hives, most bee colonies wouldn’t be able to last more than a year on their own. This is where people like Jake Knutson come in.
About 20 minutes outside of Des Moines is Grateful Acres Farm, owned but Knutson’s family for generations. Though it has changed a lot in that time, it is now the home to hundreds of nature’s best pollinators. And right now, that number is about to rapidly increase.
According to Randy Oliver, a biologist and avid beekeeper, late spring to early summer is the stage in the honeybee’s lifecycle where they see their biggest increase in population.
“It goes through four phases in the year,” Oliver said. “Starting in the spring, it starts with the buildup phase, when the flowers start blooming.”
This phase is almost over, so up next is the “swarming phase.”
“Every spring the colonies double in size,” Knutson said. “They swarm.”
After this is when the honey is produced. Bees make honey for one reason: to survive through the winter. Honey is loaded with calories, which the bees use to keep an internal temperature of 95in their hives all winter long. This is just one aspect of bees among many that set them apart from other insects.
“The honeybee is an unusual insect,” Oliver said. “It’s the only insect that keeps a high body temperature in the winter.”
These four stages encompass the entire year for honeybees, and beekeepers are right there next to them for the entire process. During this time, there are plenty of opportunities for grave damages to occur to the hives, from an assault by something as big as a bear to infestations of miniscule Varroa mites.
“Honeybees are alive and well,” Knutson said. “It’s the beekeeper’s job to make sure of that.”
That’s not to say that beekeepers have an easy job either. Aside from it being labor intensive, time-consuming and always present with the threat of stings, many of the dangers facing beehives don’t have easy fixes.
“It’s a big struggle, for me and other beekeepers, just to keep them alive every year,” said Des Moines Backyard Beekeeper member Ellen Bell. “It’s not easy.”
By far the biggest danger to honeybees at the moment is Varroa mites. Varroafirst became a problem in the 1800s, when the nonnative honeybee was introduced to the United States. Since then, according to Oliver, the “virus” has spread to every bee-friendly continent except for Australia. And the problem is so severe that any beekeeper travelling to Australia has to go through “workshops” that test for any possible mites being brought into the country.
Dr. Kim Ritman, chief Plant Protection Officer in Australia, commented on these workshops in 2018’sExercise Bee Prepared.
“We are the only continent free of Varroa destructor and to provide assurance that the measures we have in place would allow us to effectively respond to and manage a Varroa incursion, it is important that we put them to the test,” Dr. Ritman said.
Unfortunately, Knutson has had to come face to face with another one of the bees’ biggest enemies: humans. In 2018, Knutson found that three of his best hives had been attacked and ultimately destroyed while he had been away.
“I think they were just young, dumb kids that were just curious what was in the boxes,” Knutson said. Though his opinion on this changed after the attacker struck again in the next couple days.
“Curious the first time,” Knutson said. “The second time was a little malicious, I think.”
Oliver, on the other hand, has never had to deal with vandals attacking his hives. As a Californian, there are much bigger concerns to his hives, namely bears. He has had several hives in the past that have been torn apart, and in California, there just isn’t much that the beekeeper can do about it.
Other states, including Maryland, allow beekeepers to shoot bears that are attacking their hives. But for Oliver, electric fences and hope are all that stand in the way of his bees and their predators.
Bell, who also owns Bell Farm mentioned another threat to bees and beekeepers. Honeybee theft is becoming a greater issue, and one that poses more danger to the beekeepers than to their hives.
“Theft is a whole different ballgame,” Bell said. “Bees are very very valuable, hives are very valuable, and just like anything, when you have something that is worth a lot of money, it becomes a risk.”
According to Bell, a single packageof bees currently costs around $120, and the hives and tools to go with it will come in at around $300. When adding things like beekeeping suits, spare equipment, more hives and more colonies, beekeeping is a profession that can quickly enter into the thousands.
And as Bell said, after the packages are set up in their hives and producing honey, their worth rises even quicker. Luckily, she has never had any of her hives stolen, but it happens frequently. One example that had stuck in Bell’s mind was with former Iowa state representative Rob Taylor.
In 2016, Taylor had several hives stolen off of his property, with a net worth that amounted up to $1,000. This is one reason why many beekeepers, including Bell, insure their hives.
“I would encourage anyone that has bees to have insurance,” Bell said. “They’re valuable commodities. Just like anything else, I have insurance for my house, I have insurance for my car, I have insurance for my bees.”
Both Knutson and Bell, while experienced, are relative beginners to beekeeping. Especially in comparison with Oliver, whose passion for honeybees began over 50 years ago. Knutson was able to start his hives directly on his family farm, but Bell had to take a different route.
Bell’s beekeeping journey began around 5 years ago with Des Moines Backyard Beekeepers. Though originally she was just a member, she’s now an official part of the group, and runs their Facebook page. As someone who began beekeeping in her backyard, knows just how many additional difficulties come from keeping hives in an urban setting.
For one, it’s just harder to find plants to pollinate. And this is even a problem that affects farm honeybees as well as wild bees. After all, Iowa today is very different from Iowa a couple centuries ago.
“You take a state like Iowa, that used to be primarily prarie and oak savannah, and you turn in into thousands upon thousands of acres of monoculture, with soy and corn in this state and nothing else,” Bell said. “It’s really hard on the bees.”
Bees need just as much variation in their diet as any other animal. They depend on plant diversity to stay operating at peak bee condition.
“It would be like taking a human being and giving them a diet of bread and white rice and expecting them to consist on a diet of nothing but that,” Bell said. “We’d be about as healthy as the bees are now.”
Fortunately for many farmed bees, thousands of hives get relocated across the country every spring. This is because each year, Californianeeds as many hives as it can get to pollinate their almond crops successfully. Both Knutson and Bell sold some hives and sent them on their way this year.
Knutson also got a local contract with a pumpkin patch this year as well. Basically the same as shipping hives to California, but with this opportunity, Knutson gets to keep the bees and honey, as well as making some profit.
“I get a little money, and all the honey, so it’s a win-win,” Knutson said. “And pumpkin honey is delicious.”
Another issue with keeping bees in the backyard is the perceived hazard they pose to neighbors. After all, everyone knows that bees sting. But according to Bell, this isn’t an issue that anyone should be concerned with.
“There’s a public perception that bees are scary,” Bell said. “They’re insects that can sting you. People get very concerned and worried. And if you’ve had experience with yellow jackets or wasps, I would say rightly so… They need to be educated that there’s a huge difference between a honeybee and any other yellow stripey thing.”
Bell says that honeybees are much more gentle than any other “yellow stripey thing.” They’re certainly defensive, though. If someone attacks a hive, much like what happened Knutson, they’ll very likely get stung. And in a neighborhood, especially one with kids, this is concerning to parents. This isn’t a lesson that anyone wants to learn the hard way, and it’s possible for kids or even adults to provoke bees on accident.
“They’re not chickens, you know,” Knutson said. “They’re wild animals.”
The most important thing to know about starting a hive is that it is not a casual hobby. Proper beekeeping requires a lot of hard work, dedication and study. Bell and Oliver said that the number one thing someone should do before beginning beekeeping is to take a class on the matter,
These classes are very common, too. Bell first decided to try beekeeping after taking a six-week course with Iowa’s apiarist Andrew Joseph. Now, Bell has her own beekeeping class that she teaches. And Knutson said that he still takes a new beekeeping class every time he sees the opportunity.
“There’s something really addictive about it,” Knutson said. “You can’t just get one beehive. It’s impossible.”
Even with the hardships that come with it, Knutson isn’t about to give up beekeeping. He even said that if he could have found the vandals, he wouldn’t have wanted to press charges. Instead, he said he wished he could have informed them of the effect that their actions had on both his beehives and his business,
“I’m hopeful in the future that people become more aware of the impact they play,” Knutson said.