Busy bees, better environment

There’s a bee nest under the eaves on your front porch and you want to get rid of it. But before you rush off to the hardware store for chemicals or call a pest control company, do something good for bees, contact a beekeeper.

If what you’re seeing are honey bees, the beekeeper will likely remove them for free. If it’s a complicated situation — let’s say they are inside a wall — there may be a fee. By allowing the bees to survive, you’ve done your part to support the nation’s honey bee population, which is declining at an alarming rate.

Since the late 1970s, honey bees have gone “from about 6 million colonies in the United States, to 2.5 million,” said Lynn Osborn, vice president of the Suncoast Beekeepers Association.

Scientists and bee experts still aren’t sure why. They are investigating a variety of possible causes that include a new type of insecticide, diseases, parasites, loss of habitat and pesticide misuse.

Osborn, who recently removed a swarm of bees from a globe that was part of a decorative lawn fountain at a Holmes Beach house, said in that case it was as easy as putting his hand in a hole “and pulling the bees out.”

“In some cases, bees have been in a building for a while and really spread, or they are in an attic or a tough location to get at. In those cases beekeepers will usually charge.”

Osborn and his wife, Karen, keep track of the emails and phone calls about nuisance bees to the association. Usually a couple times a week there are calls that need checking out, said Karen Osborn, who is association treasurer. “We have 88 members we can turn to,” Karen said, so there is often someone close by who can help.

“We have club members all the way down to Venice and up to Tampa,” said Lynn.

Lynn is a retired high school teacher who started keeping bees in 1974 as a hobby and eventually had a thriving side business of honey production. In a few years he was harvesting 10,000 pounds of honey annually in his hometown of Highland Park, Ill.

“I had about 3 million bees in my backyard apiary. None of my neighbors complained and as far as I know, nobody ever was stung, not even my wife,” Lynn said.

In 1999, he established and managed a successful apiary — also called a bee yard — on the 97-acre Heller Nature Center operated by the city’s parks department. It started with a few hives and grew to 25 that produced nearly 4,000 pounds of honey a year, Lynn said. It is still active today and is an educational tool for local elementary schools, while sales of the honey produced there helps promote the educational programs.

After retiring from teaching in 2002, he worked as a regional apiary inspector for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. His job was to monitor apiaries for bee diseases and offer advice to beekeepers. In 2005, the Osborns moved to Coral Shores in Bradenton and at first Lynn thought his beekeeping days were over.

“He’s promised me three times he’s not going to get back into it,” said Karen, but eventually there was a hive in their backyard. Currently, Lynn keeps a few hives at his home and about 30 more at an apiary operated by a commercial beekeeper.

The soft-spoken 67-year-old also got involved in the Suncoast Beekeepers Association, giving presentations at monthly meetings and to other groups, and mentoring beginning beekeepers.

Though he describes himself as being “sucked back into” beekeeping, it’s easy to see how strong his passion is for bees and the wealth of information he has to share about them. He has gone through part of the master beekeeper program at the University of Florida and attended Florida Bee College this spring.

“Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby. It is a unique experience, it’s almost therapeutic. It ties you to a season, it ties you to what’s happening in nature on a weekly basis. The bees can tell you an awful lot about what’s happening as the seasons change,” Osborn said.

It also is hard work. “It’s physically demanding. Each box (in a hive) weighs about 70 pounds,” Osborn said. And then there is the probability of getting stung.

Osborn said he can’t really count how many times he’s been stung. “After a while it doesn’t bother you as much. If you get a stinger out quick it’s not that bad,” he said, although it “always hurts.”

When he’s tending his own hives he doesn’t always wear the beekeeper’s protective white suit and netting over his face. He’s very careful and calm and he inspects his hives with precision and a gentle, slow touch. He does use a smoker, which calms the bees guarding the hive.

“They’re pretty smart. They are hardwired for most of what they do, but they can learn. For example, they can locate a nectar source and then communicate direction and distance and richness of that floral source to other bees,” Osborn said.

There are three kinds of beekeepers: hobbyists, sideline and commercial. Most people are hobbyist beekeepers who keep a few hives on their property. Side-liners have more bee colonies and may provide pollinating bees to farmers as well as produce honey. Commercial beekeepers do both on a larger scale and often travel from state to state, pollinating crops and raising honey.

While some birds, beetles, bats, moths, ants and other bee species also are pollinators, honey bees are known as “super pollinators” because they have evolved to be such efficient collectors of nectar and pollen.

Honey bees are not native to North America, which had about 3,000 species of bees before Europeans brought the honey bee along when they settled the New World. Unlike other species that wreaked havoc in their new environments, honey bees fit right in and now pollinate an estimated 85 percent of U.S. crops annually.

In Florida, crops pollinated by honey bees have a $3.3 billion economic impact, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Because of the honey bees importance in agriculture and the economy, each state has its own inspection program. “Florida has a good inspection program,” Osborn said, and best-use beekeeping practices have helped keep some of the diseases that infect bees in check.

But there are parasites — one called the Varroa destructor mite sounds like it’s right out of a scary movie — and other sworn enemies of bees, which mean a beekeeper has to constantly be on the lookout for problems in the hive.

“We have a number of problems and none of them are solved yet,” Osborn said, but that’s one reason he likes to educate others about bees.

He’s back teaching in a way, trying to get others to recognize that honey bees are in peril and need our help. He’ll take his power point presentation to local groups, including gardeners and environmentalists.

“People need to understand how important bees are and I don’t think they do,” said Linda Jones, chair of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club, which has had Osborn as a guest speaker. “We’re concerned about anything like (bee population decline) that would have such a terrible effect on our environment.”

To get involved in bee preservation or for more information on the local beekeeping association, go to www.suncoastbeekeepers.com. The group meets at 7 p.m. the third Thursday of every month in the Northern Trust Community Room at Lakewood Ranch.

Next week: More on the growing environmental threats to bees.

Cheryl Nordby Schmidt is a freelance writer based in Holmes Beach.


Suncoast Beekeepers assistance

If you suspect you have a bee nest and want it removed, call Karen Osborn at 941-792-2112 or email kosborn7@verizon.net. Someone from Suncoast Beekeepers Association will respond, usually within about 48 hours.


Honey bee facts

Honey bees must gather nectar from 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey.

The average bee will make only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.

A honey bee can fly for up to 6 miles and as fast as 15 mph.

A bee’s brain is about the size of a sesame seed, yet it has a remarkable capacity to learn and remember.

Worker honey bees are female, live about six weeks and do all the work.

A queen bee can live up to 5 years and is the only bee that lays eggs.

The queen is busiest in the summer and lays up to 2,500 eggs per day.

Male honey bees (drones) do no work and have no stinger.

Drones fly out each day looking for a queen to mate with and, after they mate, they die.

The honey bee is the only insect that produces food eaten by humans.

— Lynn Osborn

One thought on “Busy bees, better environment

  1. Kathy Caserta

    Great article Cheryl! It is always good to learn about bees and make sure we keep them in our environment for the future generations. Bees are up there with the turtles and birds that need our protection.


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