LAFAYETTE, Ind. — For years, decades actually, alarm bells have been sounding in scientific communities regarding the United States’ falling bee population.
Scientists blame everything from disease-spreading mites to overuse of pesticides to depletion of natural habitats for the decline of bee populations. Many scientists and beekeeping enthusiasts, like Tim Caldwell, owner of Indy Bee Supply out of Indianapolis, think it’s a combination of many different factors.
Regardless the cause, an exhausted bee population can have a severe impact on the environment, agricultural landscapes and food supply, Caldwell said.
But there is good news. Across the country and throughout Indiana people are finally starting to heed warnings about declining bee populations and they’re starting to do something about it, whether they live in the country or in the city and whether that means beekeeping or just cultivating enticing habitats for bee populations.
This recent interest in beekeeping has also resulted in an uptick in bee-related businesses throughout the state, many founded by long-time bee keeping enthusiasts.
Jeff Singletary and his partner, Richard Walton, started keeping honey bees over a decade ago. Today they have 80 hives and own RJ Honey, a business that sells honey as well as beekeeping supplies and equipment.
“We just got carried away,” Singletary said.
He said with the advent of social media more and more people have been hearing about the bee crisis which, for some, eventually translates into a desire to help the endangered pollinators.
Singletary said he and Walton assumed the interest would eventually wane, as interest so often does in the age of social media, but each year they’ve only gained customers.
“We thought this would just be kind of a fad but each year more and more people keep starting beekeeping. We’re not seeing a downturn in that,” he said.
Heather Harvey started her business, Bees Gone Wild, several years ago in West Lafayette.
She sells nest houses to support native bee populations. Native bees are non-honey producing bees, like the alfalfa leafcutter bee, that are extremely effective pollinators. They are native to the continent, Harvey said, unlike the honey bee, which was brought over from Europe.
Caldwell added there are over 200 native bee populations in Indiana.
There is less funding to study and preserve native bee populations, however, Harvey said, because they don’t make honey and aren’t always as easy to keep.
But native bees are hearty, hard workers and don’t cause anaphylactic shock in people that are allergic to honey bees.
“Native bees . they’re like single moms,” Harvey said. “You start out with 20 or so bee cocoons in a nesting box, they mate and the males go off and die. After that all they do is gather pollen and lay eggs.”
A large part of Harvey’s business is about education and outreach. She encourages people to raise native bees in fields and yards and then supports them in that process.
Singletary said that’s a lot of what he and his partner do as well, and it’s what they find most rewarding about the business.
“I enjoy the mentoring,” Singletary said. “And I enjoy eating the honey.”
Doug Hoffman owns and operates Apple Blossom Honey Farm with his wife in Star City, which is one of the largest suppliers of beekeeping equipment in the state.
They’ve been supplying bee keeping equipment statewide for thirteen years. A lot of the states’ younger beekeeping business owners, Hoffman said, were originally customers at Apple Blossom.
The Hoffmans sell and manufacture lots of their equipment on site at their farm where they also sell bees and raise queens.
“A lot of older farmers are now trying to give back to the bee populations they helped destroy,” Hoffman said, which is a central reason he got into the beekeeping business.
Within a year of cultivating a hive, Hoffman continued, they saw a major difference in their apple orchard where they were having difficulty cultivating apples.
Through the mid 1990s, Caldwell said, farmers like the Hoffmans always used to keep bees to help with pollination.
“Back then small farmers, almost all of them, kept bees because they raised their own orchards and their own gardens for sustenance,” he said. “That trend left as people started going to work more and more in factories and urban environments.” And, he added, as the small farm started to disappear.
Beekeeping has never been of interest or strictly necessary to industrial agriculturalists, Harvey said, it’s most beneficial and appealing to the small farmer.
The growth of the local foods movement and resurgence of the small-time farmer, she continued, could be another reason the state is experiencing a resurgence in beekeeping and bee related businesses.
The tech world is also making forays into the world of beekeeping, marrying the practice with modern technologies that support and enhance bee populations.
The Bee Corp, a startup out of Bloomington, developed two devices that allows beekeepers to monitor the health of their hive and also install hives with a GPS tracking systems.
The company pioneered Queen’s Guard, a device, about the size of a deck of cards, that lives inside bee hives and collects data on temperature, Wyatt Wells, the company’s chief marketing officer, said.
“A healthy hive will keep around 95 degrees when its incubating the queens eggs,” Wells added. “The workers oversee the queen so if the queen isn’t producing as much as they like they will kill her and replace her with a new one.”
By monitoring temperatures the device indicates when the queen is about to be killed so the beekeeper can replace her, sparing the hive a loss in efficiency.
Hive theft has been an ongoing issue for the beekeeping community, Wells said.
The QGPS is a tracking device also developed by the company, which helps prevent theft and vandalism of hives.
The Bee Corp just received a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to enhance data collection methods that monitor and predict hive health.
With the rising interest in beekeeping and the growing need for the practice, Wells said technology like this is going to be increasingly in demand.
“People have hard about the pollination crisis and there’s been a lot of publicity about how they are essential for pollination,” Singletary said. “People want to do their part to help the bees.”
Source: (Lafayette) Journal & Courier, http://on.jconline.com/2EJMyuj
Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by the (Lafayette) Journal & Courier.