By Jill Draper
Some 10,000 honeybees in football-shaped huddles have been vibrating their wing muscles in each of Marty Hansen’s hives since winter weather hit. The bees on the chilly edges of the cluster continually change places with those in warmer spots except for the queen bee, which has the warmest spot of all in the middle. Right about now the vibrations are growing increasingly intense. That’s because the queen is starting to lay eggs and needs extra heat. At first she’ll lay 100 to 200 eggs per day, which Hansen describes as “a few.” By mid-March he says each queen will be going “full blast” producing thousands of eggs a day.
A beekeeper off and on since he was 10 years old in the 4-H Club, he’s still amazed by the mutual dependence, diligence and drama of these insects which, along with native bees and pollinators, are crucial to our food supply.
“It’s unbelievable. There are so many aspects of bees that people don’t realize,” Hansen says.
If you’ve ever thought about keeping bees, the Midwestern Beekeepers Association is offering a beginning workshop via Zoom on Saturday, February 20, from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. (with several breaks). The cost is $25 for non-members and includes a downloadable handbook, a 1-year association membership and a monthly newsletter. Pre-registration is required.
Hansen belongs to this association as well as the Cass County Bee Club and the Northwestern Kansas Beekeepers Association. There’s also the Missouri State Beekeepers Association. These groups all offer advice and classes.
“Learn all you can before you jump in,” Hansen says, “but now is the time to start.” The bees are not yet flying except on mild days when the temperature reaches 60 degrees and they venture outside to clean themselves (er, poop), which Hansen explains they will not do in the hive. He keeps hives in four locations, including Belton where he lives on several acres. Retired from Honeywell, he plans to expand to 20 hives or so after recovering from ankle surgery next month.
According to the National Honey Board, each worker bee produces less than one teaspoon of honey during its lifetime, which averages five to six weeks during summer and five months during winter. Hansen harvests 60 to 70 pounds of honey from his best hive, and averages 40 pounds from the others. He always leaves about 60 pounds for the bees, and if they run out during winter, he’ll supplement their food with sugar.
“There are beekeepers and there are bee havers,” he says. “If you neglect the hives, the bees will die out.” Hansen estimates a hobby beekeeper should expect to spend about $400 to $500 when starting out. This money includes a bee suit and a smoker. Bees can be ordered in the spring through the mail or obtained from another beekeeper who’s ready to split an existing hive.
The main problems Hansen battles are mites, hive beetles and pesticides. He lost three hives in one spot that’s he fairly sure was contaminated by a neighbor spraying for weeds. Companies that spray for mosquitos also are dangerous. “They kill pretty much everything, including beneficial bugs like ladybugs.” He says corn and other seeds coated with neonicotinoids are beginning to affect bees as well.
“Bees don’t just go to flowers,” he says. “They go to trees, soybeans and everything else.” Hansen hopes that interest in beekeeping will increase with more people staying home during the pandemic. “The environment needs them,” he says, adding that most of the associations offer a scholarship program for high school students who want to keep hives. Club members help them build the boxes and pay for the set-up. The students must stay involved with club activities and agree to enter honey at the state fair.