Bees have been coveted for both their honey and influence over the ecosystem and food supply; they are key to pollination of Nebraska crops and important to the state’s agriculture industry. Now, bees are also a recreational reprieve for the insect-inclined. But there are viral threats to colonies that first-time beekeepers should be aware of.
Sarah Schiefelbein, who works in Bellevue as a veterinary assistant, has always been interested in the environment and how pollinators interact with it. She was first inspired by urban beekeeping after tuning into a podcast – The Hive Jive. Starting in June, she began tending a colony in her Council Bluffs, Iowa, backyard thanks to her sister Lauren, who suggested beekeeping as something to do during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Ironically, honey bees face their own pandemic; for decades parasites have spread viruses that threaten the bee population, and in turn threaten their work pollinating some $15 billion worth of U.S. crops. And in recent years the problem has become serious, leaving scientists searching for solutions.
“I’ve just always been fascinated with them and how if they die, our food supply will just plummet,” Schiefelbein said. “How they affect us so much and how there are so many diseases with them that we don’t know how to treat, and hive collapse and how it just happens and no one knows anything about it. I just love the mystery. There’s so much to be discovered in how we can help them just as much as they help us.”
Nebraska has an entire network of beekeeping resources to assist enthusiasts like Schiefelbein in maintaining healthy colonies. Sheldon Brummel is a project manager at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Bee Lab, which performs research on bees to learn about pollinator health factors. He also runs the Great Plains Master Beekeeping program that provides training for beekeepers of all skill levels. Brummel said he absolutely sees a rise in recreational beekeeping right now.
“Beekeeping is a growing hobby, with many younger generation beekeepers beginning to learn the new tricks of the trade to keep their bees alive in the changing agro-ecosystems – especially Nebraska,” Brummel said. “I think beekeeping is growing in popularity because people want to be closer to nature in our urban daily lives and bees offer a great way to do that.”
Schiefelbein has read “Beekeeping for Dummies” and “Homegrown Honey Bees,” but she said her most invaluable resource has been the Omaha Beekeeping Club. Anytime she has a question about her colony, they answer right away for free, which is especially helpful because she doesn’t have a mentor.
“The people who’ve been doing it for forever are so helpful,” Schiefelbein said. “It’s a very welcoming thing. It’s not like ‘you don’t know this’ or ‘you did that wrong’ kind of atmosphere. It’s just like, ‘OK, here’s how you fix it.’”
Indeed, many things can go wrong in caring for a beehive, even for experts. According to Brummel, viruses like deformed wing and Israeli acute paralysis can wreak hive-havoc in a colony that has been stressed by chemicals, pests, lack of food or all three.
“Kind of like how a human body has viruses inside of it but you usually only show symptoms when your immune system is weakened,” Brummel said.
Even in her first year, Schiefelbein has already had a run-in with pests. First was hive beetles. These can destroy honey and eat into the brood – young larva of bees – replacing them with their own larvae. The real problem is they are hard to treat. Chemical insecticides work on the beetles, but those same chemicals can harm the bees. This season, Schiefelbein set up slotted devices called oil traps – they lure beetles with bait and drown them in oil – to naturally rid her hive of the pests, and has plans to treat the ground to prevent them coming back in the future.
Her next problem this year was ants, which she warded off with cinnamon. Paired with the temperature dropping that doesn’t allow her to check on her hive as often, it’s hard to keep on top of these things.
“Going into fall was a little rough,” she said.
There are beekeepers who read up on all caregiving information before ever welcoming their first bee, and there are beekeepers who wing it. Schiefelbein said for her, it is less stressful to take everything as it comes, though being prepared does help in knowing what crises to look out for. She treated for Varroa mites – a big concern in the area this time of year, but didn’t think to treat for anything else.
“I had kind of grazed over the chapter of parasites and things that are not good for your colony because I’m like ‘oh, it won’t happen in the first year. I’ll be fine,”’ Schiefelbein said.
Bee management is taxing, but the reason Schiefelbein has still been having fun is her approach to learning.
“I’m willing to say I don’t know what I’m doing when a problem pops up and have someone help me,” Schiefelbein said.
Bee problems are plentiful but virus mitigation and advocating for the insects isn’t just a beekeeper thing – anyone interested in boosting pollinators can help.
“Beekeepers and anyone really can help mediate the damage by providing lots of blooming – preferably native – flowers in their yards, gardens and pastures, as lack of adequate food stores are a main driver of bee losses,” Brummel said.
Everyone should care, after all, because the agriculture that grows a rainbow of healthy foods relies on honey bee pollinators and beekeepers. Brummel urges people to also remember over 500 species of wild bees in Nebraska and thousands of wild bee species in the world that pollinate wildflowers, trees and shrubs, providing habitat, food and shelter to native wildlife.
“Those bees are also in trouble and anyone can help them out by just reducing or stopping the use of pesticides and herbicides in their landscape and by planting native flowers,” Brummel said. “If you plant it, they will come.”
Don’t be afraid when the stingers appear in the garden. Schiefelbein’s bees are extremely docile, and caring for them has even made her braver with wasps. It’s all in understanding the bees’ priority is doing their colony job – not going after humans.
“I’ve gone up to my hive and stuck my face basically in the entrance in flip flops, a tank top and shorts, and they haven’t cared,” Schiefelbein said. “I will just stand there. I’ve taken videos with no gear on.”
Schiefelbein said she sees her affinity for bees spanning into a side business in selling honey and teaching, or even becoming a master beekeeper. But this is all a bonus to her real interest – learning how to help them thrive.
“They’re just so fascinating,” Schiefelbein said. “That’s just the best way to put it – I’m a nerd. They’re way different than I thought going in. They have a lot of different things that they do for very specific reasons.”