ARGENTA — What does a retired fire department captain do with his time?
Mark Allen keeps bees.
“We don't really know what we're doing,” he said. “We're just winging it.”
A couple of weeks ago, Allen and his wife, Tammy, got a call from an Oreana homeowner who lost a tree in a bad storm. There was a beehive in the tree and it was damaged. If somebody didn't rescue those bees, they would all die. The Allens picked them up, hoping against hope that the queen was among the surviving bees, and took them to their rural Argenta home, where they set them up with a new hive. This week, they discovered that the bees are building honeycombs.
The Allens have created a permaculture field at their home. Fruit and nut trees are lined up in straight rows, with currant bushes beneath them. The idea, Mark Allen said, is to create a self-sustaining, food-producing area that won't require replanting every year, like tomatoes or corn.
“Ultimately, once you get a canopy, you go down to the ground cover level and then to the fungal level,” Tammy Allen said. “It's like a super-system and you never have to plant anything.”
They started keeping bees to pollinate those trees and plants, and have six hives now, counting the recent rescue.
To get the rescued bees started, after they moved them into a prefab hive box, they feed them sugar syrup. Once the bees get their own honey made, they'll be able to take care of themselves.
"These guys are starting out with nothing,” Mark Allen said. “Normally, we wouldn't be feeding them at all. But they don't have honey stored, because their hive was destroyed.”
'That one's mean'
Other than a little honey for their own use, the Allens don't take honey from their hives. The bees need it to sustain themselves over the winter. Once a hive is well-established, the Allens don't have to do much of anything for the bees and just let them alone.
This also isn't their first rescue of a hive. They have a second hive that was rescued from similar circumstances, which had been in an unused grain bin, but ultimately had to be moved. The way you rescue a swarm of bees is, you scoop them all into a box and take them to a new home. If their queen survived and is among them, the other bees will stay wherever the queen is. Put them into the new hive and they'll do the rest. When a hive gets too numerous, some of the bees will migrate elsewhere and create a new queen, which is done by making “royal jelly” and feeding it to the chosen bee, who then transforms into a queen. Only the queen lays eggs. The other bees often have very short, hard lives because they work constantly making honeycombs and honey from the pollen they collect.
Each hive has its own personality, Tammy Allen said.
“That one's mean,” she said with a chuckle, pointing to one across the field from the rescued hive. “They want to sting you.”
Even when she just passes it while mowing, she said, the bees come after her. The rescued bees are fairly calm, and when they have to open the top of the hive to feed them or check on them, the bees usually ignore them.
Beginning beekeeping can be expensive. You can order bees through the mail, which are delivered in a box, with the queen in a separate container. The cost for the bees and the hive to get started can be several hundred dollars.
“You get these boxes with 15,000 bees in them,” said Paul Butler of Macon, who has four hives. “The bees will stay with their queen. You take her out of the box and put her in the hive. You basically dump the bees in the hive and put the lid on and wait.”
Bees don't want to sting people, Butler said. The one time they get annoyed is when someone is taking their honey. He's been stung enough times that he's developed an allergy to the stings, so he takes precautions when he has to work with the hives — taping down his pant legs, heavy gloves, a hood.
“I'm pretty allergic to bees, but I like them a lot,” he said.
The survival factor
Pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths are crucial to the survival of the rest of us, and between disease and loss of habitat, their numbers have decreased alarmingly in recent years. When a hive is overcrowded, some of the bees will swarm and gather on a tree or a car or a house while scouts head out and look for a new hive. Don't disturb them, Butler said. As soon as they find a new home, they'll leave.
“All bees are struggling to survive for a variety of reasons,” said Richie Wolf, director of Rock Springs Nature Center. “Certainly, anything we can do to help is important. Plant pollinator gardens full of native plants. We were involved in the city's native plant ordinance and we hope it's a small step (toward helping the pollinators). There are some restrictions to it, but we want to do anything we can do to encourage the planting of native prairie plots.”
It may not seem as if the bees and butterflies are struggling if you see a lot of them when you're outdoors, but COVID-19 might have provided more time to spend looking than in more normal summers, he said.
“People in general are spending a lot more time hiking and exploring in state parks, the park district,” he said. “I don't think there's any research that shows the population is doing better but people are noticing them more.”
Around the perimeter of the Allens' property, they have done just that. The border of their permaculture area is full of native plants, but their bees don't seem interested. The bees prefer the clover and the blooms on the fruit trees, which sometimes actually vibrate from the number of bees on them.
“The butterflies love (the plants), though,” Mark Allen said.
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Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter
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