Bee colonies on upswing in Illinois

FAIRMOUNT — If every beekeeper started out like David Burns did nearly 20 years ago, Illinois likely would not be enjoying its current upswing in honeybee colonies.

"I started the old-fashioned way," said the Fairmount-area certified master beekeeper, who has turned his passion for the honey-makers into a business that teaches others how to start bee colonies and help them thrive, continuing their vital role in the pollination of the agricultural industry.

In 1994, an Ohio friend and beekeeper needed to transfer some honeybees from a tree to a hive to save them and offered them to Burns, who came along to help.

"They were just stinging us like crazy. We had to run into the woods," said Burns, who was not deterred and returned the next day for a successful transfer.

A year later, Burns moved with wife Sheri to Vermilion County, where he slowly continued growing his bee colonies and learning. By 2005, he was blogging about bees, making his own fully assembled wooden hives and selling them through eBay.

Then, in 2006, Colony Collapse Disorder became an issue, wiping out significant numbers of honeybee colonies in the United States. Suddenly, Burns' phone started ringing off the hook with people wanting a startup package to become keepers and save the honeybee.

Steve Chard, supervisor of the Illinois Department of Agriculture's apiary inspection program, credits the increased awareness of the importance of honeybees in the pollination process with significant increases in the number of new beekeepers in the state.

"And another good reason is people are just genuinely intrigued by the honeybee," he said.

Last year, Chard said 697 new beekeepers registered with the department, which is required if a person acquires one or more colonies. The number of Illinois beekeepers has increased sharply since 2002, with a total of 2,519 managing 24,382 colonies Illinois by the end of last year.

And so far in 2014, another 250 new beekeepers have registered with the state, Chard said.

It continues to be mostly "a hobbyist endeavor," according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which reports that 87-plus percent of the state's beekeepers manage 10 colonies or fewer, and 18 of them maintain more than 100 colonies.

But more than half of the commercially managed honeybees are in the Midwest in the summer months, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They're concentrated in five states — Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

It's a critical time to increase support for the U.S. honeybee population, which has declined for decades. In 1947, there were 6 million honeybee colonies in the U.S. Today, there are 2.5 million, officials say.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack attributes the drop-off to a combination of diseases, parasites, pesticides and habitat loss, and government agencies recently received directives to take additional steps to protect and restore domestic populations of pollinators.

'We need them'

Since his phone started ringing eight years ago, Burns has been busy as a bee.

He has grown his beekeeping into a full-time, home-based business — Long Lane Honey Bee Farms — which sells his custom-made hives. During their busy season — September to June — Long Lane will make and ship about 50 hives a week, Burns says. His starter package of bees — a queen and 3 pounds of bees, roughly 10,000 — comes in a plastic container a little larger than a cigarette box.

He also sells honey, raises queens for other beekeepers, offers 20 to 30 classes a year and travels all over the Midwest removing hives — preserving the bees if they're still active — from houses and other structures.

This week alone, he had three calls for bee removal. Exterminators refer calls to him.

Generally, Burns said, people see bees as a stinging insect to be killed.

"We need them for pollination," said Burns, who explained that outside of the hive bees are gentle and pollinate plants and trees that grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables, even coffee beans. "One of three bites of food is connected to pollination from bees."

On the orchard

To see the important link between honeybees and agriculture, it's a short trip to Curtis Orchard in Champaign, where the owners keep their own bee colonies for pollination and talk about the relationship during tours of the property.

Rachel Coventry and her grandfather, Paul Curtis, who started the orchard, are the resident beekeepers. Coventry, who has taken Burns' classes, said there are wild bees that pollinate the orchard, but they also keep 16 to 18 managed hives to aid that process.

"We plant a lot of flowers to give them something else to forage," Coventry said.

Burns said beekeepers in small cities have colonies that can actually thrive very well, because there's a lot of landscaping and other areas for them to search.

Prior to the increased awareness about bees' importance, Chard said, his department would mostly get calls from people asking how to rid of swarms of bees.

Now, they call to ask how they can save them, he said.

Coventry, who was introduced to beekeeping while in the Peace Corps, is encouraged that the number of Illinoisans registering to join the cause is on the rise.

"The more people who understand it and study, the better it is for all of us," she said, "because we need the bees."

Busy bees

In 2002, the number of registered beekeepers in Illinois plummeted to 1,107. It has increased every year since, now approaching 1988 levels, when there were almost 3,000 beekeepers.

Year Registered Beekeepers Number of Colonies
2013 2,519 24,382
2012 1,825 21,231
2011 1,815 21,266
2010 1,631 20,547
2002 1,107 17,963
1988 2,966 37,025

Source: Illinois Department of Agriculture

All the buzz

In 2013 there were 2,519 registered beekeepers managing 24,382 colonies in Illinois alone. Iroquois County leads the East Central Illinois pack — and is second to Union County statewide — with 1,573 colonies.

A list of counties and the colonies in each:

Iroquois: 1,573

Champaign: 329

Vermilion: 131

Edgar: 93

Douglas: 79

Piatt: 53

Ford: 34

Source: Illinois Department of Agriculture

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