By Christine Bryant
For many local beekeepers, what was a hobby has turned into a passion for saving the tiny creatures that have an enormous impact on the world around them.
About one-third of all food Americans eat is derived from the honeybee pollination – from fruits and nuts to vegetables and field crops.
Yet since the 1940s, the honeybee population has seen a dramatic decrease. Researchers say colonies have decreased from 5 million to about 2.5 million due to a variety of reasons, from parasites and viruses to environmental stress caused by loss of habitat and pollen.
For central Ohio beekeepers, their love for the insect that’s often misunderstood is paramount to their survival – and the survival of much more, they say.
“By now, most of us have heard that honeybees are directly responsible for $13 to $14 billion worth of agriculture product and one-third of the food on our dinner plates,” said Jerry Hinton, owner of Hinton Apiaries in Grove City. “What does not get mentioned very often is that it will not just be some vegetables and fruits that are impacted.”
Agriculture products grown to feed cattle, sheep, goats and other animals are also impacted by the honeybee and pollination, he said.
“Many plants will grow and produce seeds without direct pollination from honeybees and other pollinators, but in most cases with honeybees on the job, the pollination is much more complete and results in larger fruits and vegetables, more seeds and a tastier food,” Hinton said.
Walk through any farmers’ market and you’ll likely see a product that’s the result of work by beekeepers like Hinton and the thousands of bees he raises. For Roger Miller, his 18-acre property near Baltimore is dedicated to his love for beekeeping.
Miller, whose business, Roger’s Honey, has sold a variety of products including honey, skin cream and beeswax candles at local farmers’ markets such as Reynoldsburg’s, says even though he retired seven years ago, beekeeping has become a second career for him and his wife, Marlene.
“This is my passion. I love being a beekeeper, but it’s challenging,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s worse than a roller coaster sometimes.”
Although this year has been a successful year for the couple – they have 70 boxes of bees with about 50,000 bees in each box – other years have been a challenge to keep their bees healthy.
“Environmental problems are putting a lot of pressure on the bees,” Miller said. “They’re running out of forage areas and parasites are getting on them, inducing viruses in them. Plus there’s the chemicals they spray on the farms.”
Hinton says during the last decade, Ohio beekeepers lost between 20 and 50 percent of their beehives each year.
“Time and research have revealed the cause to most likely stem from three stressors that have essentially reached critical levels at the same time,” Hinton said.
A new class of pesticides called neonictinoids, a loss of healthy forage plants and the presence of Varroa mites, a small bug that attaches itself onto the honeybee’s back, all have had an impact on the local bee population, Hinton said.
“Can you imagine a cattle rancher or goat farmer living with losing 20 to 50 percent of his or her herds every year?” he said. “Honeybees are our livestock and it’s no different and just as damaging.”
Times have changed for beekeepers, and have pushed many to change the practice of beekeeping.
“When I started you bought the bees, put them in the box, went home and made honey,” Miller said. “Those days are long gone.”
Now, the art of beekeeping is more complex, with constant monitoring of the colonies to ensure their health, he said. A typical day for Miller often involves visiting a colony, examining the bees, maintaining the property and in the evening, making the products he and his wife then sell at craft shows, consignment stores and co-ops.
For Hinton, while he has two beehives in his Grove City backyard, most of the honeybees he raises are located in out-yards – beeyards or apiaries located on other people’s properties.
“An ideal apiary is located as far away from agriculture as possible along with aspects such as easy access for me, limited access for others, close water source and of course a close abundance of forage for the bees to live on,” he said.
Hinton also treats the honeybees he keeps inside Grove City differently than he does the beehives located in his apiaries.
“We call this good neighbor beekeeping practices,” he said. “We watch the hives a little closer and we manage the beehive to prevent swarming and to keep the number of honeybees to a more manageable lower number.”
Urban beekeeping has become a rapidly growing hobby that Hinton predicts will continue to grow each year.
“We recently were involved in assisting the city council members of Grove City to put into practice regulations that make sure urban beekeeping is safe and practical not only for the beekeepers’ neighbors, but the beekeeper him or herself,” he said.
Urban beehives kept by a responsible beekeeper are rarely known about, Hinton said.
“The number one reason neighbors do not want a beehive next door is fear of bee stings,” he said. “The only time a honeybee will sting is if you step on it barefoot or if you’re the beekeeper stealing their honey.”
Saving the honeybee will require a multi-faceted approach requiring education on all fronts, Hinton said.
“Things like engaging the chemical giants that supply pesticides for agricultural practices and the homeowner wanting a perfect lawn to produce a safer product, to consumers using their products as indicated and in the smallest amounts to allow effectiveness,” he said. “We also need as many new beekeepers that we can encourage to start this hobby at a time when beekeeping is struggling to remain viable. Urban beekeeping will continue to grow and continue to be increasingly important to our environment.”
For information on Hinton Apiaries, go to hintonapiaries.com.