Spring Keeps Illinois Beekeepers Buzzing
Similar to just about any agricultural enterprise, very little in beekeeping is agreed upon by every beekeeper. One thing they do agree with at this time of year is to check honeybee colony health and to get those bees that survived a rough Illinois winter off to a strong start.
“I anticipate about a 60 percent loss overall,” said Larry Krengel, northern region director for the Illinois State Beekeepers Association after he recently checked his hives when temperatures cracked 60 degrees. “In reality, that is a bit pessimistic because there were some colonies I sent into winter with low expectations for their survival. On the other hand, a couple I really expected to survive did not make it.”
Bees cluster in hives during the winter. As temperatures drop, bee clusters get tighter to keep warm and they move around the colony eating stored honey. Even though Krengel tried protecting four of his honey bee colonies with a newer type of insulation this winter, those were among the ones he lost. He notes several factors other than temperature can have an impact on bee colony survival in Illinois. “Even now, when we’re only a month away from the first good forage, there are still some colonies that will not make that last month,” he says.
While awaiting more sources of pollen and nectar for bees, Krengel, who manages up to 30 hives a year, and many other Illinois beekeepers have begun moving Mother Nature along by placing sugar water at the tops of their wooden hives.
“When they bring it in they begin evaporating it down, storing it in cells and then using it to feed the young,” says Krengel. “That’s the cue then that the queen says, ‘O.K., this must be spring.’”
Krengel sells his honey at some delicatessens and health food stores in McHenry County. He offers a few tips on how he believes you can tell the difference between high and mediocre-quality honey.
A queen bee can lay 2-3,000 eggs a day. As they begin emerging three weeks later, the population of the colony can increase by more than 2,000 bees daily.
Starting a little over a decade ago, some beekeepers have experienced Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says CCD occurs as a result of several factors, including an invasive varroa mite, viruses, pesticides, stress caused by transporting commercial hives and inadequate or changes to forages.
“Beekeeping is the only agricultural endeavor that is not really land-based; you don’t have to have a big field to plow, you don’t have to have a pasture for your cows,” says Krengel. “Bees are very good at working what we call the wastelands, places that were too wet, the fencerows, roadsides. We’ve now decided to clean a lot of those up and the bees are having to look farther for forage.”
Beekeeping in Illinois remains popular. Hosted at the McHenry County Farm Bureau, the Northern Illinois Beekeepers Association will typically attract 100 or so beekeepers and others at their Friday night meetings in Woodstock. Beekeepers must register with the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA). Statistics released late last year show:
- 4,308 beekeepers in the state, managing over 30,000 colonies
- Numbers have increased since 2002 with 572 new IDOA registrants in 2018
- Will County, with more than 2,300 registered colonies of bees, has the most with Lake and Cook counties rounding out the top three.
Illinois specialty-crop farmers rely on bees to pollinate crops they grow in the state such as apples, blueberries, cucumbers and pumpkins.
Krengel, who also hosted teachers participating in his county Farm Bureau’s Summer Ag Institute last year, notes most bee breeding in the United States takes place in Georgia, northern California and Hawaii. He believes small, local beekeeping could prevent problems caused by a narrowing bee gene pool.
“Small-scale beekeeping that has become so much more popular these days is actually giving us a hand,” he says. “Those small-scale beekeepers will take up raising queens in their backyards – sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally – but those are queens that are now raised locally. We might find out that might be one of the saving graces of the bee world.”
To learn more about beekeeping in Illinois, visit the Illinois State Beekeepers Association website.