By B. Scott Mohr
“To bee, or not to bee?” Well ... that's a pretty simple question to answer when considering that one out of every three bites of food that we eat is made possible by bees. Without the pollination that they provide, it would be nearly impossible to grow the many foods we depend on.
Bees are essential to the good health of about 80 percent of plant life because they pollinate it, helping to produce seeds, said Fred Kidwell, a beekeeper since 2005 and Garfield Park's resident beekeeper for about seven years. “Oh, we would still have apples without bees, but the quality and quantity wouldn't be there.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that bee pollination adds $15 billion to the value of crops annually. Bee hives are driven to farms across the country to pollinate fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fibers and hay. Nearly 60 percent of the country's hives are transported to California in February to pollinate almond trees.
Most commercial beekeepers agree that they could not survive without the income from renting bees to the almond growers. “Commercial beekeepers make most of their money off their pollination services; the honey is just a side thing,” said Kidwell, who harvests between 55 and 60 pounds of honey each season from his hive at the park. “
And I make sure I leave the bees that much so they have plenty of food to get them through the winter. I still can't believe I got 100 pounds in 2012, when we had a drought. I didn't think I would get any because all the flowers had dried up. “Most people harvest twice a year; I just do it once. I use quite a bit of my honey, but I always save enough to give to family and friends at Christmas.
There is a big demand for local honey. A pound can cost between $8 and $15.” He estimates that his hive numbers between 60,000 and 80,000 bees at this time of year, when they are busy from sunup to sundown, but that amount will drop to around 20,000 come winter.
“Bees aren't dormant in the winter, but they can't fly when it’s below 40 degrees. They keep their hives warm by moving their muscles. Even when its 10 below zero, the center of the cluster of bees – about the size of a volleyball – is 85 degrees; it’s 45 degrees on the edge of cluster.”
The average lifespan of a worker bee is five weeks (a queen bee can live to be 4 and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day). Bees normally forage for nectar within a 2-mile radius of their hives, but they have been known to travel as far as 8 miles. Upon finding nectar they return to their hives and do what is known as “the bee dance,” which alerts the other bees to the location of the food.
The initial expense to start a hive is around $500, said Kidwell, who noted that most of that expense is a one-time deal. A box of 10,000 to 20,000 bees can cost $135. “Urban hives are some of the best because the bees have a variety of food; they have a great diet. Once you get a hive started, you'll need a nearby supply of water for the bees to drink, and they use water to cool their nests if they get too warm. Bees really don't have a preference for flowers; anything with a lot of nectar will do.”
For people interested in starting hives, Kidwell will host a free workshop from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Garfield Park Conservatory, 2450 Shelby St. “Everyone will get to taste raw honey,” he said. Call 317-327-7275 to register.
Kidwell, 68, recalls having an interest in bees as a child. “My dad harvested honey from trees when we went hunting in North Vernon. I would hold a smoky oil rag to calm the bees while Dad got the honey. It was quite an experience. Raw honey right out of the hive is great. Dad put it in his coffee, and I put it on my toast.” A 1967 graduate of Manual High School, Kidwell has fond memories of the park. “I learned to swim there, and my great-uncle Joe Meo worked there. I spent a lot of time at the park as a kid.”