What’s buzzing in McGregor and Marquette? Brooks enjoys beekeeping hobby

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McGregor resident Joe Brooks currently has four honey bee hives—three in McGregor between his and his daughter’s backyards, as well as one at a friend’s home in Marquette. Once established, the bees are largely self sufficient. “Bees are happy to make honey, to forage and gather. You put them in the hive and they do their own thing,” said Joe. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Frames hold the honeycomb in the beehives. Honey can be harvested from a box, which is about 10 frames, in the middle of July.

“It’s estimated a bee has to visit 1,000 flowers to make up what it brings to the hive, and it takes 30 bees to make up a teaspoon of honey,” Joe explained. “It’s a lot of work, but there are a lot of bees to do it.”

Each of Joe’s hives currently contains around 100,000 honey bees. Just a small number of them can be seen outside at one time, however.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

 

Joe Brooks likens beekeeping to gardening. “You just plant it and let it grow,” he quipped. “Bees are happy to make honey, to forage and gather. You put them in the hive and they do their own thing.” 

 

“It’s really interesting to watch them work,” he added.

 

The McGregor resident currently has four hives—three in McGregor between his and his daughter’s backyards, as well as one at a friend’s home in Marquette.

 

He took up the hobby around six years ago.

 

“I was at a friend’s house when I was living in Portland, Ore., and he had a bee hive. Without any protective gear, he went out, took off the top of the hive and starting pulling out the frames and showing me the bees and the queen,” Joe shared. “I thought, ‘That’s interesting. There’s been such a concern about the shortage of bees. Maybe I could put together a hive and see how it goes.’” 

 

The first year, there was a noticeable difference in his neighborhood. Cherry trees that had never produced began to bear fruit. 

 

“It was the bees doing their work,” he said.

 

When he moved to McGregor, the hobby followed.

 

Joe said starting a hive requires an initial investment, roughly $500. Equipment can be purchased online, but some local stores, such as Nelson True Value in Prairie du Chien, also offer everything a prospective beekeeper might need.

 

“You just have to get a package of bees,” said Joe. “You might have to feed them initially, if there’s no food [honey] stores, but the bees basically go off and do everything for you. It’s pretty easy to set up.”

 

A bee kit or package runs from $100 to $150. It typically holds 30,000 bees, including a queen, and weighs three pounds. NUCs, or nucleus colonies, are also available. These have four or five frames—the structures in the beehive that hold the honeycomb—along with a queen and brood of immature bees.

 

“You can use either to get started,” Joe said. “The packages can come through the mail, but usually I pick them up at a place where you can buy bees. The closest is about an hour away in Wisconsin.”

 

Bees are considered livestock, he added, so they can’t remain in their transport containers for long. You have to take them out and put them in the hive.

 

Hives do best in areas where they will be undisturbed and receive morning sun. The location also can’t be too moist. 

 

“The honey will not mold, but the bees have to live in this area, and if they have to fight mold all the time, it gets to be a problem,” Joe remarked. “Having said that, they still need a source of water. I’ve got a bird bath and other sources of water for them, and they seem to be very happy with that. Their range is up to five miles, so they can go to the river and come back too.”

 

Each of Joe’s hives currently contains around 100,000 honey bees. Just a small number of them, around 100, can be seen outside at one time, however.

 

“For the most part, people don’t even know the hive is there because the bees keep to themselves,” noted Joe, who said he doesn’t fear an attack. “If you go in and start messing with the hive, they might get upset. But normal honey bees are too busy doing what they do to be bothered with you.”

 

The bees can be more irritated in the afternoon than in the morning, he cautioned, but utilizing a smoker usually makes them more docile.

 

“I do get stung occasionally,” he said, “but it’s not anything to be worried about. Now, if you’re allergic, that’s a different situation.”

 

While Joe has read a variety of beekeeping books, he said it doesn’t translate into useful knowledge until he figures out what the reference materials are talking about. He prefers a hands-on approach.

 

“You can learn a lot being around the hives and seeing what the bees do,” he stated. “What we’ve known for years is that bees communicate through a dance, and they can tell each other how far the honey trees are, how far water sources are. They are a very organized group.”

 

Bees also work quickly. You can harvest honey from a box, which is about 10 frames, in the middle of July. That still leaves the bees plenty of time to fill another box to sustain them through the winter.

 

“It’s estimated a bee has to visit 1,000 flowers to make up what it brings to the hive, and it takes 30 bees to make up a teaspoon of honey,” Joe explained. “It’s a lot of work, but there are a lot of bees to do it.”

 

Luckily, nectar sources are plentiful. Bees can utilize flowers as well many trees, including oaks, he said.

 

“Nectar from a flower is about 80 percent water,” he shared. “The bees decrease the amount of water in the nectar, and also partially digest nectar, to turn it into the simple sugars glucose and fructose to make honey.”

 

While maintaining the hive itself isn’t labor intensive, Joe admitted harvesting honey isn’t always easy. Honey is collected from the frames. You cut into the honeycomb, decap it and put it into a centrifuge, either hand operated or motorized, to extract the honey from the honeycomb.

 

“Guys who do it commercially have large operations where they separate out the honey,” Joe said. “The biggest problem is it gets very sticky. You’ve got to filter the honey then because, by decapping, you lose some wax into the honey. It does get to be quite a bit of work when it comes to spinning it down.”

 

“When you get done, you usually have quite a bit of honey,” he shared. “I probably had six gallons last year from two hives. I can’t say I eat a lot of honey, but I have friends who love it and I give some of the honey to them.”

 

The most difficult part of beekeeping, though? Keeping the bees alive.

 

Hives can fall prey to diseases such as foulbrood, a bacteria that kills the bees and destroys the hive. Mites, which can attach themselves to bees and drain the bees of their energy, can also be an issue, as can hive beetles that tunnel through the honeycomb, draining the honey and allowing moisture inside. The first sign of an infestation is when honey smells like it’s fermenting. 

 

“Honey itself is about 18 percent water when the bees store it and, at that concentration, there’s nothing that will grow in it. But as you dilute it out, that can become a problem,” said Joe.

 

Additionally, hives can be devastated by colony collapse disorder, when the majority of bees simply mysteriously disappear. They can also struggle if the queen, who typically lives two to three years and produces about one million bees in her lifetime, is unhealthy.

 

But winter is by far the biggest culprit.

 

“You can do everything you can to protect them, but you’re still at the mercy of the elements.  The cold weather of the north is hard on them, and most of the time, the bees don’t make it through the winter because they freeze. I also had one hive that starved because spring got to be so late and they used up all their honey,” said Joe. “Once a year, I usually have to re-bee my hives.”

 

Despite that unfortunate circumstance, Joe said he’ll continue to maintain his hives. He’s maxed out at four, though.

 

“I never planned on having more than two,” he joked. “But it’s fascinating to be involved in the process, to have a hive and see how the bees work, to have the honey. There’s always something new you’re learning. I also feel like I’m contributing to the food sources. Bees are an important part of that.”

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