Beekeeping in Illinois

Honey Bees

On Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm, Taggart Siegel talks about his new documentary, Queen of the Sun. The film tells the story of beekeeping and honey bees at risk of Colony Collapse Disorder, an epidemic threatening bees and the farms that rely on their pollination. Colony Collapse Disorder first appeared in the U.S. in October of 2006, when many beekeepers noticed between 30 to 90 percent losses in their bee populations.

Chicago Tonight spoke with David Burns, an Eastern Apicultural Society of North America certified Master Beekeeper. Burns and his wife run Long Lane Honey Bee Farms in Fairmount, Ill., where they raise bees, build beekeeping equipment and teach courses on beekeeping.

Burns has approximately 100 hives and millions of bees. Burns said he hadn’t yet had a problem with Colony Collapse Disorder.

“I thought it would really hurt our business,” Burns said. “It kind of had a double-edged sword. It devastated a lot of beekeepers, but on the other side, it got a lot of publicity for honeybees.”

Although he hasn’t had a problem, just a few weeks ago Burns heard from a man in Florida who had lost a huge percentage of his bees.

“It’s still out there, it’s still a problem,” Burns said.

He said the problem must be caused by a number of different things, ranging from mites in the hives and poor nutrition to chemicals and pesticides.

“It could be a combination of all those factors weakening the bees’ immune system,” he said.

Burns noted that fungicides, sprayed on crops and trees, have a sub-lethal effect on honey bees. This means that they won’t die after coming in contact with the poison, but they will bring it back to the hive where it could affect the growth of larvae.

Particularly dangerous to bees are the neonicotinoid pesticides used by agriculture giant Bayer CropScience to protect crops.

Last winter, many beekeepers in Illinois lost up to 50 percent of their bees, although Burns said it was not tied to Colony Collapse Disorder.

“It’s a result of too bad a winter,” he said. “The bees weren’t ready to go through winter, and some beekeepers didn’t have the skills. You need about 60 to 80 pounds of honey in the hive to go through the winter. If you go through winter with 30 pounds, that’s just poor preparation.”

Burns said it is normal to lose up to 20 percent of your bees in a hard winter, but not more.

The plight of the honey bees is critical, said Burns.

“One out of three bites of food comes from the pollination of a honey bee,” he said, so low numbers of bees mean fewer fruits and vegetables, as well as other products.

Cows eat grass that is frequently spread through bee pollination, so things like dairy, milk and meat could be affected.

Burns urged sterner government evaluation of approved chemicals for pest reduction, as well as vigilant farmers. He said people should avoid mowing down dandelions, because they serve as important bee food sources after a long winter.

People should also be more careful when spraying pesticides, waiting to spray late in the day when bees are heading home to their hives.

“And don’t kill hives if you find them in your home,” Burns said. “Call a beekeeper and we’ll come get them.”

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