STREATOR, Ill. — Human diets will be bland should we run out of honeybees, O’Connell Farms & Apiaries owner Michael O’Connell pointed out during his "Beekeeping 101" class at the third annual Streator Downtown Farmers’ Market event Aug. 4. "It’s going to be bad if that happens," the Dimmick Township landowner told his audience. "Last winter in Illinois, roughly 60 percent of the state’s 20,000 beehives were lost to the cold weather. Sixty percent is 12,000 hives.
"I run 232 hives and lost fewer than 40 percent, or 94 hives. Still, it was a big loss – a lot to replace and a lot of work."
Many vegetables found in farmers’ markets, including melons, cucumbers, strawberries, pumpkins, blueberries and oranges, need honeybees for pollination. Maintaining bees in the face of extreme cold winters in northern Illinois, and the unknown blight or virus that is killing them off by the thousands, is a challenge in itself, O’Connell added.
"A lot of good individuals on the research side are working toward a cure to the virus," he said. "Involving more people in beekeeping is another way to keep the industry going. The more beekeepers we have, the more stewards we have to care for them. Hopefully the next generation will bring out younger beekeepers. It’s usually middle-age or older beekeepers now, unless it’s a family-operated business."
Beekeeping is much work that involves heavy lifting and facing hot weather and humidity. It’s financially challenging as well, because good grades of beekeeping equipment are costly. Replacing bees is one thing – but replacing the whole hive is another, according to O’Connell.
"Safety is the single most important thing a beekeeper should know," he said. "As with any job, you want to be safe. If you’re working around bees, you’re going to get stung – that’s natural. Too, smoking the bees could cause a fire."
A bee smoker is a metal can device that generates smoke from various fuels to calm honeybees while working around them. Anyone smoking bees in their hives must be careful to not accidentally light a fire because beeswax is quite flammable. "Also, skunks and opossums could possibly approach the hives, and you have to be careful around them," O’Connell said. "Skunks love bees and can eat them by the thousands. A skunk’s fur is so thick the bees’ stingers cannot touch the animal’s body.
"Be wary, too, of snakes and dogs around beehives. Ticks are a new menace around beehives, which are white. They’re terrible and getting worse every year. They seem to love white."
Illinois has approximately 400 beekeepers in three categories. Commercial beekeepers manage at least 300 hives. Sideline beekeepers such as O’Connell have up to about 300. Hobbyist beekeepers generally have 10-20 hives.
The average beehive is built up of 10 frames. Each hive has one queen and 58,000 workers. The female bees do all the work in the hives. Young queens lay about 1,500 eggs daily. They lay female or male eggs at will. The drones, or male bees, are there for a single purpose: To create a new maiden queen. "Then that’s it – they’re done and they’re kicked out of the hives before winter," O’Connell said.
Honeybees generally swarm around Mother’s Day, with the old queen going along. They usually don’t sting while swarming. Bees normally bounce off a person before stinging. Anyone stung by a honeybee should push the stinger from their skin with an object like a credit card.
"Don’t pull the stinger out," he noted.
There are two ways to acquire honeybees. One is to catch them while swarming and the other is by purchase – the best route for beginning beekeepers. A three-pound package contains 12,000-14,000 honeybees at a cost of $80. New beekeepers should start out with two hives, not one, for comparison.
The Streator Farmers’ Market was host to weeklong activities, including Beekeepers 101, to mark the 15th annual celebration of National Farmers’ Market Week. The market is managed by Curt Bedei and currently has 40 farmers and crafters selling a wide variety of products, including tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, meat, eggs, baked goods, homemade charcoal, goat milk soap and crafts.
Call 815-257-6807 to learn more.