Whether they live in Kansas, California or New Mexico, honeybees are hard workers. While flapping their wings at least 230 mph, these pollinators often carry almost the same weight as their small body.
Along with producing honey, honeybees are extremely good pollinators. Farmers, gardeners and naturalists across Kansas are understanding the need to build up a honeybee and native bee environment.
Increasing bee population
Jorge Garibay, of North American Pollinator Alliance, is on a mission to help bee enthusiasts introduce hives and bee-friendly management practices to increase the amount of bees present in Kansas, where the honeybee is recognized as the state insect.
"Bees are an untapped resource," said Steve Swaffar, executive director of No-Till on the Plains and a small-operation beekeeper. "They bring diversity and pollination to crops."
Swaffar, who grows tomatoes, okra and potatoes on three acres of land in Berryton, just south of Topeka, has worked with bees for five years. He did not realize until recently, when he met Garibay, he was working against the bees instead of working with them.
By learning to embrace natural cycles and adding more crops and flowers that bees enjoy, as well as setting up well-insulated houses, Swaffar went from a small amount of honey production and bees that did not winter on his land to more honey and thriving bee colonies that have dramatically enhanced his garden.
"Jorge uses the biology of the bee," Swaffar said. "He understands what the bee is going to do."
Building a bee sanctuary
For retired physician Jack Mull, of Sterling, bees represent harmony with nature. Mull is building a habitat for bees and people who want to understand the insect. For decades, he tried to have bees flourish on his nature preserve. Each time, honey was sparse and the bees left in winter. He had to keep buying bees, so he gave up.
Last year, Garibay introduced Mull to a new method of attracting bees. Without buying any insects, Mull accumulated thousands from his own property.
"There were bees here that were looking for a home," Mull said. "My goal is to have the biggest number of bees in the area."
By understanding the timing of when to harvest honey and how much to keep and not be greedy, Garibay is helping Mull’s preserve flourish. Unlike many other beekeepers, Garibay harvests during the summer and leaves honey in the hives for bees to live on throughout winter.
"You must create a place for them to live," said Mull, who introduced hundreds of flowers and herbs that the bees love. "They are increasing the amount of food for the quail and pheasants."
Mull’s goal is to create a haven for bees and enliven the habitat through pollination. Mull has 16 hives on his more than 400 acres. He hopes to ramp up to 20 beehives. Approximately 40,000 bees live in each box that Garibay built.
"Jack has created a near-paradise for bees," Garibay said. "He wants to let the bees be bees."
Farmers are beginning to understand the symbiotic relationship between the bee and their crops. Darin and Tove’ Brunk run Santa Fe Trail Farm with Tove’s father, Joe Swanson, in Windom. For them, the honeybee represents a stronger and healthier crop. By introducing these pollinators, they are helping to pollinate their crops and enrich their soil. By using different species of crops that flower throughout the year, their farm is providing the bees with a rich habitat.
For decades, Swanson has used both no-till and cover crop practices to enrich the earth. He and his family are excited to add a new livestock – bees – to the mix. In addition to helping the soil, pollinators decrease insects that cause harm to crops and vegetables.
"We acknowledge the impact we have as farmers," Tove’ Brunk said. "For every practice that we implement, there’s always a reaction. We didn’t recognize how our practices impacted them (bees). Now we are giving them habitat."
Although entomologist Raymond Cloyd, a professor at Kansas State University, is seeing neither a decrease nor an increase to bee populations in Kansas, Swaffar, Mull and Brunk are watching their colonies multiply. With the help of Garibay, they are introducing others to beekeeping.
"We are concerned if the beekeepers continue declining then who’s going to provide the hives?" Cloyd said. "As long as there are flowering resources, they can continue to produce honey."
Cloyd recommends continually monitoring hives for mites. But, according to Mull and Swaffar, the way Garibay manages the bees, mites no longer present a problem.
"We manage our hives without any inputs, and we don't supplement the bees with sugar syrup," Garibay said. "On average, a Kansas beehive should yield, based on national surveys, between 55 and 72 pounds of honey."
Garibay does not place hives in suburban or metropolitan areas. He said the insects need room to navigate and have a year-round water source.
"Bees need water to thermo-regulate their hives for heat in the summer and for humidity during the winter," Garibay said. "Kansas is a great place to raise bees because of its abundant rural areas."