In his protective suit, beekeeper James Reich holds the frame that bees fill with honey. Reich and his father have more than 130 hives.
The buzz of bees is summer's music. But in Pennsylvania and many other states, people are working hard to keep bee songs in the air. “We have to work hard to keep them healthy,” said Jim Reich of Butler. “It's a rough battle.” For Reich, it was the interest of his son, James, that got him started. They now have more than 130 hives. “It's difficult today,” said Jerry Hefferan of Oakland Township. “There are more diseases and pests than when I started.” Hefferan has worked with bees for about 40 years. Barry Leicher of Chicora has kept bees for nearly 20 years. When his neighbor stopped keeping bees and Leicher realized the lack of bees was changing his crops, he became a beekeeper. One problem for today's beekeepers is colony collapse disorder. Leicher said mites causing the problem weaken the hive through the males. Young honeybees may develop without wings and eventually the colony cannot survive. “The mites came here from Asia in the late 1980s,” said Hefferan. “If you don't treat for mites, a hive won't survive more than about two years.” “The feral bees are almost extinct from it,” said Reich. “Every year, beekeepers are losing 30 to 40 percent of their hives since 2006.” Beekeepers and scientists are looking for ways to stop the disorder. For example, Reich is developing a “northern-bred queen” that could be hardier for local winters. He hopes that the new queens will cut his losses. More bears in Butler County are another threat to local hives. “Bears prefer the larvae, and they'll take that over the honey,” said Hefferan. “There are bears coming to my place all the time,” he said. Bears went after hive parts stored in a building. “They ripped the door off the building,” said Hefferan. “You have to keep everything behind electric fence. Once a hive is knocked over, it's hard to keep them out.” “I lost three hives last year to bears,” said Leicher. “They used a tree to climb up and let themselves down behind the fences. Once the bear tears the hive apart, the bees don't want to use it. The bees can smell the bear.” Reich said a hive may have 5,000 to 10,000 bees in the spring and 50,000 to 80,000 bees in the fall. To skunks, that is a gold mine. “They'll rake the hives with their paws,” said Hefferan. “The bees come out and they smash them and eat them. You'll see muddy paw prints on the hive and bee parts on the ground. A skunk can eat a couple hundred a night and if nothing is done, they'll keep coming.” Many people can take action against another problem bees are having. USDA's Agricultural Research Service recommends avoiding indiscriminate pesticide use. USDA also suggests planting pollinator-friendly plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen such as red clover, foxglove, bee balm, joe-pye weed and other native plants. Dandelions can be annoying to gardeners but dandelions are not simply weeds. Reich said that dandelion nectar helps bees replenish the hive's honey after winter. Bees need stores of honey for their own survival. Hefferan explained that when honeybees go to a blossom to gather nectar, they have pollen on them from the last flower. This pollinates the plant to produce fruit. Reich said, “One third of everything we eat is pollinated in one way or other by honeybees, including grains that cattle eat.” Hefferan said bees are an indicator species. “If there is something wrong there, there is something wrong somewhere else,” said Hefferan. Leicher believes fear of environmental degradation is one reason that more people are interested in beekeeping. When he teaches beekeeping classes, he may have 25 to 50 students and 85 percent go on to establish hives. Reich said starting an average hive means purchasing bees, the equipment for the hive and protective clothing. For one hive it amounts to about $500, and experts often recommend starting with two hives so their progress can be compared. Hefferan attributes some of the rising interest in beekeeping to the interest in organic and natural foods. “People want to go back to nature,” said Leicher. “They are afraid of what's happening in the world.” Even with the work and challenges, beekeepers are dedicated to these industrious creatures. Hefferan said, “Bees have tremendous instincts. Watch when they swarm in the spring or how they can keep a hive warm all winter. They communicate when they find a floral source. They tell the other bees where it is and how far away it is.” “It's black in the hive. It's like a factory in the dark. They communicate with different smells and dancing by wiggling their body,” he said. “They work nonstop,” said Leicher. “I try to keep up with them and I just can't. The bees will have to make 10,000 trips to make a teaspoon of honey. They are so dedicated to the colony and the queen.” Bees definitely are busy, but they can bring calm to some beekeepers. “I enjoy it. I'm out in the sunlight and peace and quiet. It's great,” said Reich.
Honeybee or yellow jacket?
“Honeybees are the least aggressive bees,” said beekeeper Barry Leicher. “They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them,” said colleague Jerry Hefferan. “A honeybee is on a mission from their hive to the nectar,” said fellow beekeeper Jim Reich. “If you are in the way, they fly around you. Get out of their way and let them do their thing. Unless you threaten the hive, they don’t acknowledge that you are there. If it is hovering around you, it’s usually not a honeybee.” Reich said that the bees interrupting a picnic are usually yellow jackets. Honeybees won’t be attracted to sweet things quickly the way yellow jackets are. “If it’s in the ground, it’s definitely yellow jackets,” said Leicher.