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Keeping busy bees safe, healthy and happy can be a tough job

Ben Roberts checks on his bees at his Bremerton honey farm.  - Seraine Page
Ben Roberts checks on his bees at his Bremerton honey farm.
— image credit: Seraine Page

Anyone who has been out on a honeybee farm knows that there is no rest. That goes for the bees and their keepers.

“This is what I do now,” said Ben Roberts, manager of Loving You Honey Farms. “I’m re-learning what I used to know. I’m going to be doing a lot of feeding of the bees this year.”

Roberts is slowly working on building up his parents’ honey farm business after moving back to Washington state from Indiana. His parents started the business in 1985 with 120-plus hives. After his dad got cancer, the hives were neglected and mites and parasites also took a toll on the bees. They soon disappeared, leaving nothing more than sticky hives in their wake.

Now the farm has only nine new hives, but Roberts is determined to build them back up, which is not an easy task, especially for folks here in the Pacific Northwest who keep bees.

“Bees don’t do cold real well, and they don’t do wet real well,” said Mark Emrich, president of the Washington State Bee Association, an organization focused on assisting beekeepers and the agricultural community in the state. Emrich, who is frequently interviewed by large news organizations including NPR, compiles regular data on beekeeping in the Pacific Northwest.

Out here in wet, cold and moisture-filled Washington State, that seems to be a bit of a problem for beekeepers watching over honeybees. Last year, winter hive losses were at about 35 percent, Emrich said.

“Here, they’re at a disadvantage because of our climate. The beekeeper has to be a little bit more honed in on his craft,” he said. “We are comparable to the rest of the country (in losing bees), which is sad on so many levels.”

Roberts can understand all about perfecting the craft. While he grew up around honeybees and honey production, he moved out of state and lost some of his skills and trade. When he came home, he found his mother’s farm overtaken by large blackberry bushes, weeds and busted and broken hives. In her garage, he found three tons of honey in barrels. Which is fine because honey never spoils, according

to Roberts.

Originally, Roberts meant to work with just two hives. But he got back and somehow his project of two hives turned into clearing land and setting up new hives and plants for pollination.

“Needless to say, that didn’t work out,” he laughed. “I have a three-year plan. I reason my mom has hung onto it is because it’s the one thing she wanted to give to me. Ultimately, the bee thing isn’t a bad idea.”

Emrich agrees. Especially since entire hives cannot be imported to the United States from just anywhere.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, only an adult queen and package bees (workers, drones, with a queen) can be imported from Canada or New Zealand. With that information on hand, Emrich believes that it is important that beekeepers do their best to work hard to keep colonies healthy and alive. Due to parasites and poor beekeeping, the recent decline of bees doesn’t surprise Emrich, but it does frustrate him.

“We have beekeepers, and we have a bunch of people with bugs in a box,” Emrich said of professionals versus amateurs. “You have to literally make a date to be with your girls.”

Emrich advises beekeepers check their hives at least every two weeks to make sure mites and other pests, like the varroa mite, aren’t invading. Regularly checking on the honeybees also ensures that hives aren’t being overcrowded, which can lead to swarming, meaning that bees leave and go elsewhere with the old queen.

For those who want to know more about keeping bees happy and healthy, Sheyanne Ricicar is glad to help out. As an employee at Stedman’s Bee Supplies in Silverdale, the young store manager is excited to chat about bees any chance she gets.

“It’s more than just throwing them in a box,” she said. “They do need weekly care.”

Ricicar has a chance to inspect hives and feed bees weekly when she isn’t working inside the gift shop. The site offers bee supplies like handmade wooden hives, and fresh honey in a variety of flavors like raspberry, wildflower and blueberry.

Before working for Stedman’s, Ricicar had no real working knowledge of bees. Working in a shop where she can hear the hum and buzz of working bees in an observatory hive, she’s found a certain peace. Getting stung doesn’t even worry her anymore when she holds a tray up for inspection.

“I just really fell in love with it,” she said. “Before I was here, I didn’t even know there were different types of honey.”

Now, Ricicar knows all about honeybees and the dangers they face. She’s worried like most beekeepers about viscous wasps and destructive mites. Soapy water kills wasps and yellow jackets without using harsh chemicals and killing bees, she said.

“The honeybees are having such troubles,” she said. “We try to find natural ways to help bees.”

Farmers must also be careful with pesticides because the wrong type can kill off bees quickly. Between pests and dangerous pesticides, the future doesn’t look so bright for bees if beekeepers can’t get a handle on it, Emrich said. Disappearing bees would greatly impact pharmaceutical companies that use the wax and honey in products. It also could be the end of certain breakfast cereals and cosmetics due to a lack of access.

“Beekeeping is not sexy. It doesn’t get a lot of headlines,” said Emrich. “Unless there’s something thats absolutely earth shattering ... you aren’t seeing their obituaries.”

Natural substances, like peppermint oil, however, keeps pests at bay and also keeps the bees healthy enough to keep producing, said Roberts. Additionally, Roberts thinks planting mint fields around his hives may help ward off parasites.

“It does no damage to the bees, but it kills off the mites,” he said of the oil.

With more than a quarter of a million bees to take care of, Roberts doesn’t have much time to rest. He came back in April to take care of his grandmother who has since passed, and his 76-year-old mother who recently had back surgery.

“I work 24/7,” said Roberts. “Basically, I’m finishing what they started years ago.”

Roberts points to several areas of the property, stretched across five acres in Bremerton that he plans to expand the business on. He suspects it will take some time to build up, but he’s ready for the challenge.

It’s been two years since the farm has sold a drop of honey, and he knows his mom is ready to get the farm’s honey out to the masses.

“A lot of people are waiting for it,” he said. “People are actually excited about it.”

 

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