One hive at a time, several area residents are trying to help bees survive and thrive.
Backyard beekeeping is a hobby that’s become more popular since reports and stories about bee deaths and the effect on America’s agriculture have gotten people’s attention. Bees are among nature’s best pollinators, helping to improve the health and production of vegetables, crops, fruit and nut trees, and more. But bees have been dying at high rates over the past decade in what’s called colony collapse disorder, with some researchers pointing to pesticide use, climate change and invasive pests as factors.
“The media bringing this to the attention of people has really helped generate a lot of interest in beekeeping,” said Bill Vinduska, who, along with his wife, Cindy, runs an apiary and heads up the Great Plains Beekeepers group that meets monthly at Great Plains Nature Center. About six years ago, the club had about 30 members, he said. Now membership is around 150.
Wichita residents Rick Pugh and Tim Brown are two of those newer backyard beekeepers, motivated to do some thing about America’s shrinking bee populations.
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Pugh said he also took up beekeeping in part as a nostalgic connection to his grandfather.
“As a kid, I remember him dealing with bees,” said the west Wichita resident, who is in his third year of beekeeping.
For Brown, this time of year makes him particularly happy. It’s when the bees are more active after being dormant during the winter.
“I come home from work and say ‘hi’ to the family and then look outside to see the girls buzzing,” said Brown, who has seen an increase in the vegetables he and his family grow in a quarter-acre garden in north Wichita since he became a beekeeper four years ago. He has three hives on his property of 2.5 acres.
Brown’s reference to “the girls” is because female bees are the worker bees, heading out each day to find food sources to feed the colony. They travel about a 3-mile radius from their homes in search of food, picking up and dropping off pollen among flowers, trees and plants. The male bees are called drones, and their only job is to mate with the queen to make more bees. The queen can lay thousands of eggs a day. Fertilized eggs become the workers, unfertilized eggs become the drones.
At this time of year, bees like to swarm. It’s what happens when a cluster of bees, along with a queen, go looking for a new home. They may hang around in a particular area for only a few hours or for several days, depending on conditions, according to the Kansas State Extension Entomology website. The website lists beekeepers, like Vinduska, who are volunteer swarm catchers, willing to capture the bees and give them a home.
Beekeeping isn’t a hobby for the uninformed or the easily intimidated.
“It can be intimidating to work with critters that can get upset and cause you pain,” Brown said.
All three beekeepers were quick to point out, however, that honeybees sting only when they feel threatened. If you leave them alone, they are happy to leave you alone, they said.
If you plan on keeping bees, it’s a good idea to let your neighbors know, Pugh said, so they’ll be aware of the increased buzz in their yards and nearby. One of his four hives is an observation hive, allowing him to invite his neighbors over to look inside the hive through a clear protective barrier.
“A lot of people just want to get bees, put them in a (hive) and think that will help,” said Vinduska. “You need to know how to manage and take care of them.”
To learn more about bees, Vinduska encourages people to come to the Great Plains Beekeepers meeting held from noon to 4 p.m. the second Saturday of the month at the Great Plains Nature Center, 6232 E. 29th St. North. It’s a great way to network and ask questions, said Vinduska, who also teaches an annual three-day class at the center. In the past, the Wichita Park and Recreation Department also has offered classes.
Bees require regular maintenance. After suiting up in protective gear, beekeepers need to open the hives to check on hive production and the bees’ living conditions. Small hive beetles are an opportunistic pest that can wipe out a hive, as Pugh discovered. Bees can also succumb to varroa mite infestations.
But there can be sweet rewards, too, when it’s time to harvest extra honey from the bees, who produce the sweet treat as a winter food source. In his first year, Pugh harvested 8 gallons of honey from his initial two hives.
Plus there is the benefit of having more productive gardens and fruit trees. Pugh said his neighbors have said they’ve noticed a difference in their flower beds.