Breeding bees is a touchy business.
Phil Ebert, of Ebert Honey, says not only has it been difficult keeping colonies alive for his Lynnville-based honey and beeswax operation, it is also a challenge to reproduce bees with desirable characteristics. Coupled with environmental and habitat issues, the bees and their keepers have a tough road ahead.
Parasites wipe out hives like a plague. Supplements are nowhere near as good for bees as natural pollenizers. Controlling mating practices to determine which characteristics the colonies can have is also a pain in the abdomen. Especially when Africanized drones have a greater chance of mating with a queen.
“Unless you really have your area saturated with drones with the characteristics you want, you have the potential to get some mean bees. They’re a lot more defensive than you might think,” Ebert said with a laugh. “And we have these parasites moving from bee to bee, too…
“Couple this will all the environmental stress that we have, we’re dealing with bees that don’t live as long as they used to. Thirty years ago, if you got your bees through the winter, the first of March, it was over – you had it made. Now, that’s when they really start to die. So keeping these bees alive is a major problem.”
In spite of continuously treating for mites, Ebert Honey and other producers are losing bees. Most of the treatments work, Ebert said, and there are ways beekeepers can check their colonies for mites. But about half of the mites will be in what beekeepers call the brood, or the egg, larvae and pupae.
“You have the potential to double your mite load in a couple of weeks. When that happens, it’s screwed. If you have too many emerge, you get all these damaged bees plus all these viruses running rampant in there,” Ebert said. “The main upshot of this is the bees cannot handle the mite load they used to.”
Although he’s sure the parasites have an adverse effect on the amount of honey produced by a colony, Ebert said it doesn’t horribly limit the production. But everything has a trade off in the beekeeping world. Typically, beekeepers are giving up some honey production to get mite loads under control.
Usually the mite issues do not get really bad until the main honey flow is finished. Apart from this past year, most fall honey flows have disappeared, Ebert said.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig learned of the challenges and successes facing Ebert Honey on Jan 28 during his 99-County Tour. When it comes to honey, Naig knows habitat is always going to be something the Iowa Department Agriculture & Land Stewardship needs to be thinking about.
“So we talked a lot today about that nexus between soil conservation, soil health, water quality and then what’s that opportunity for pollinator habitat — and habitat of all kinds, but particularly the pollinator habitat,” Naig said, noting the department of agriculture is always looking to adopt more conversation practices.
When most people think of agriculture, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t bees or honey. Naig said that’s not right, because there’s great Iowa-grown honey being sold on grocery store shelves and being used by local bakeries and breweries across the state.
“We have great opportunity in the state of Iowa. Yeah we’re known for the big things that we do: corn and soybeans and pork and beef and eggs. But there is very much a diversity to our agriculture. As we learned today, this particular operation has been around for a long time,” Naig said. “They’re not new to this.”
Ebert Honey was handling its first set of colonies in 1980. It was a hobby that turned into a way for Ebert’s kids to make money, and then “it went crazy.” Nowadays, the small crew handles, at most, about 1,800 colonies; each colony can house up to 50,000-60,000 bees in the summertime.
“It’s a lot of little bodies running around,” he said. “Beekeeping is like a disease you can’t get rid of. I can’t explain the attraction of it. But I’ve been at this for over 40 years and I’m still energized when I look at these boxes and see all that life going on. But it’s also very disheartening when you cannot keep them alive.”
It was only in the past six years that Ebert Honey really started to notice the issues with bees, specifically keeping them alive.
But the Jasper County beekeeper said the problems had begun as early as 2005. Ebert hoped his meeting with Naig would spur the installation of more prairie strips, which according to Iowa State University “provide both abundant and diverse flowing plants” to agricultural landscapes. The bees would appreciate it.
“If we could get something for the road sides and then if we can get a couple of these prairie strips established, it would be a big plus. Having these bees get natural pollen is much more nutritious than these supplements that we’re giving them,” Ebert said.
Of course just giving bees access to more pollenizers is not an easy solution, either, especially when the protein content in pollen continues to decrease from the effects of global warming. Everything is stacked against the little buzzers.
“It’s a tough world out there for a bee,” Ebert said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of the story stated Ebert Honey has been losing bees to mites for the past 50 years, but the producer has been making honey since 1980 – or about 42 years. The story has been corrected to show beekeepers have been struggling to keep bee populations up for a number of years.
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or email@example.com