Glory Reitz — Staff Writer
Bringing the bees through the winter is the hardest part. There are too many ways to die.
Duane Bajema starts his beginner’s beekeeping class with one free session in the beginning of January. He calls the first class “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Beekeeping,” and uses the time to lay out beekeeping pros and cons for potential students.
On Feb. 1, two of Bajema’s students were missing. The remaining two sat down across from two former students, whom Bajema invited to help him remember and express the joy at the heart of beekeeping. Bajema has been beekeeping since the 1970s, and though each student has varying amounts of grey in their hair, they also still have the fresh glow of enthusiasm.
“Why should these guys even get excited about this?” Bajema asks the program graduates, leaning back in his seat at the head of a small classroom table in the Agriculture Stewardship Center. “I’ve scared people off, and there’s money involved, so why should these guys even have bees?”
Dean Johnson comes to Bajema’s class regularly to lend his expertise, and visual aids , to the new students. Throughout the class time, Johnson rolls his chair away from the main table, only to glide back with a photo of his own hives, a cup of mites, or a hive topper full of sugar.
Johnson took the course seven years ago with his wife, and they have kept bees ever since. He now often wears a “Save the Bees” sweatshirt and boasts of 28 hives contributing to Adaville Honey Company, co-founded by him and his wife.
“One’s dead,” Johnson said with a shrug. “I just noticed on Saturday.”
Dead colonies are common. Bajema drills it into his students to start with two hives, in case one dies. He says Iowa used to see 20 percent of its hives die each year. Now, between 40-60 percent die, but no one knows exactly why.
Around the middle of class, Bajema told his students, new and old, to take a break while he tried to get a stubborn PowerPoint to display. The students picked up cookies and small red Solo cups of apple juice and discussed where to get wood shavings for their hives, as well as how to work with farmers to organize safe times to spray pesticides.
Within minutes, Bajema had the computer working and, snagging a cup of juice, he led the group to look at a sample hive. Using the hive as a visual aid, he explained how to put a “nuc” (pronounced “nuke”) of new bees into the middle of an empty box. As the colony grows, beekeepers must add a second box on top of the first, giving the bees room to expand. But timing is key: if the box comes too soon, the bees will never fill out the sides of the hive. Too late, and the hive will “swarm,” leaving the cramped space behind to find a new home. The beekeeper may never see them again.
After Mike McAlpine finished the course two years ago, he took Bajema’s advice and entered beekeeping as a hobby with one goal: to get through the winter. But before the trees had dropped their leaves, Alpine realized he had pushed the time limit too far: his bees swarmed.
Johnson supplied Alpine with a new queen bee, and every week, Alpine checked his hives and refilled food supplies. Both hives made it through winter, but in the spring, one of them began to fail. Alpine’s best guess about the hive’s eventual death was that the queen was “spotty.” But there’s no way for him to really tell.
What kills bees? Bajema easily named disease, pesticides, parasites, “varmints,” and lack of flora in the habitat, what beekeepers call “pasture.”
In class, Johnson rolled to the table with the yellow-and-clear test bottle he used to test for mites. To use it, he would scoop a half-cup of bees, about 300, into his yellow test bottle with a little rubbing alcohol or windshield washing fluid and shake it. If the bees have mites, the parasites will fall off into the bottom.
Johnson then passed around two nested clear plastic cups. Between them is a sprinkling of brown flecks: Varroa destructor mites, which drill holes through the bees’ chitin exoskeleton to suck out the fat, leaving the bees vulnerable to disease.
“So, if you have these little mites making holes in the bee’s segments,” Bajema explained, “they crawl in there and make a hole, and that hole doesn’t heal.”
One of the students, Diamond Vogel Paints purchasing manager Craig Pennings, asked what to do if he finds mites on his bees.
“Cry,” Bajema said without hesitation.
There are treatments for mites, but they come with conditions. Beekeepers can’t apply poisonous treatments while they have “honey supers” on their hives, or the honey would be polluted. And if a beekeeper uses one treatment for too long, the mites build up a resistance to it.
With all the hardships and uncertainty beekeeping brings, many prospective students decide not to take the class after the first overview. Each of Bajema’s students must commit to keeping their own hive after the course ends, because the best way to learn beekeeping is by keeping bees. Bajema uses this course to prepare students for buying bees in early spring to care for indefinitely.
Beekeeping’s seasonality makes it a difficult field for Dordt University students to join. Hannah Landman is a junior biology major. Her grandparents have kept bees for as long as she can remember, and her immediate family picked up the trade about ten years ago.
Landman says bees would interest her even if she didn’t have the family history, and she isn’t the only one on campus. She knows other students involved in environmental science who would be interested in re-starting Dordt’s old beekeeping club, but winters would be difficult, and summers would require someone to return to campus to watch the bees.
Still, Landman is keeping her options open and has talked to Bajema about the possibilities.
“I’d still love to do something,” she said in an email. “Especially since honey harvesting happens in the fall and in my experience, this is a great way to get those scared of bees a bit more involved.”
Like so much else in beekeeping, Dordt students’ future involvement is uncertain, but those determined enough to stick around aren’t going anywhere.