By Shana Siren Kempton
After last year’s cold snap, Marty Hansen of Belton opened up his hives to discover he had lost 40 percent of his honey bees. Even for a beekeeper like Hansen with decades of experience, the harsh cold spell took its toll on his hives and so many others in the area.
In the wintertime, bees do not hibernate. The male bees known as “drones” are literally left out in the cold while the female bees cluster together inside the hive to maintain a temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Bees vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat, keeping the brood (the eggs, larvae and pupae) and the queen alive. On the occasional warmer day, bees take the opportunity to fly out of the hive to cleanse themselves and quickly return to their post. Inside, they consume their stores of honey and pollen while beekeepers supplement their diet if necessary.
Weather, neonicotinoids and other pesticides, Varroa mites, hive beetles, and other detriments to the health of bees are constantly being monitored and addressed by vigilant beekeepers.
“The bees are losing but there is always hope,” says Hansen. According to a survey by the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, 45.5 percent of managed honey bee colonies across the United States were lost from April 2020 to April 2021. “We’re desperately trying to get more people interested in bees to make more splits and make more bees,” pleads Hansen.
A real comradery exists in the beekeeping community where knowledge is shared and mentorships fostered. Local beekeeping organizations include the Midwestern Beekeepers Association and the Northeastern Kansas Beekeepers Association for all levels of expertise. Meetings are free and yearly dues (under $18) include access to a book lending library and monthly presentations. Both offer scholarships to youth.
Mike McGonigle of Martin City started beekeeping six years ago and credits his success to expert advice from mentors. “Most beekeepers are welcoming of anyone who is willing to take the time and take care of the bees.”
Last winter, McGonigle lost one of his hives and found another extremely weakened. By bringing in frames of brood ready to hatch, he was able to bolster the health of the weaker hive at the advice of his mentor from the Kansas Bee Company. “Every year brings a different challenge,” he says.
Both Hansen and McGonigle call the bees “fascinating” and speak of them in intimate ways. Hansen says, “I love to work with them and I play with them all the time,” while McGonigle calls them his “girls.” Both find it rewarding to help these pollinators that are so beneficial to the ecosystem, and of course, they enjoy the honey which boasts nuances of local flavor and higher nutritional value than some of the ultra-processed, commercially available honey.
“To be able to do a hive inspection and see the industriousness and coordination and the beautiful comb that they build and then to experience the joy of spreading your own honey on your toast every morning…it is pretty remarkable,” says McGonigle.
Hansen enjoys helping others with beekeeping, including his three-year-old grandson, Weston Hansen. A veteran himself, Hansen mentors veterans at the VA Hospital where there are currently two hives, and he also teaches classes through the local beekeeper organizations. He is currently working on becoming a Great Plains Master Beekeeper.
For interested individuals, a beginning beekeeping workshop will be held on Feb. 26 through the Midwestern Beekeepers Association where Hansen will be a featured presenter. The class is from 8 a.m-4:30 p.m. in Raytown. Cost is $65 and includes lunch and membership.
“Every new colony that somebody starts is another large population that will be helpful to the environment,” says McGonigle.