COVID-19 has mixed impact on beekeeping

Corky Schnadt, president of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association, pictured here with bees, finds that in one way the COVID lockdown makes it easier to learn new apiary techniques. | Provided photo.

Honey sales are up, but the in-person mentoring that helps young beekeepers learn their craft has suffered. But how has COVID affected beekeeping in Illinois?
“It’s actually been a positive, oddly enough,” said Eugene Makovec, editor of the American Bee Journal, based in Hamilton, Illinois. “Everybody wants to buy honey. The honey I sell is from a dozen hives that typically produce 500 pounds of honey.
“Last year I sold primarily around the holidays to three or four local stores. This year, the stores I sell to went crazy in honey sales, starting in April. It’s been difficult to keep up with them. I’m actually going to run out of honey.”
His explanation: Honey is comfort food.

It’s important for beekeepers to keep abreast of new developments in their field, and that, too, has benefited.
“I find Zoom meetings very helpful” said Corky Schnadt, president of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association. “I just attended a symposium by the University of Nebraska. There were entomologists from all over the country. I thought, ‘There is no way I would have gotten all this information otherwise.’ I would never have gotten in the car and drove to Nebraska. Zoom meetings keep us connected with the latest data.”
Not all is rosy in the apian world, however. Novice beekeepers, after sinking $500 or more into a hive, a colony of bees and protective gear, have concerns they like to share with experienced beekeepers.
“New beekeepers had more of a struggle,” said John Leibinger, vice president of Northern Illinois Beekeepers Association. “They didn’t have an opportunity to get coaching and mentoring. For new beekeepers, understanding what’s normal; they look at their hives, and don’t know if they’ve got a problem or not. They think they’ve lost the queen. A lot of things that make people nervous. They open up and see things they haven’t seen before. They just need a little hand holding, reassurance that things are OK.”
Speaking of reassurance, I understand my readership well enough to know that more than a few of you are wondering, “Why am I reading a story about bees?”
Well, for starters, I like bees. How can you not? Bees are very likable. “Stout warriors in their waxen kingdoms,” as Virgil calls them, presenting a bee battle in a protracted parody of the “Iliad” in his farming book, “Georgics.”
Bees are also beautiful, graphically. Napoleon picked the bee as symbol of his empire.

Provided photo.
The American Bee Journal has been around continuously — except for a brief pause during the Civil War — since 1861. It was published in Chicago until 1912, when it moved downstate.

Today’s detour was prompted by my stumbling across an 1894 issue of the American Bee Journal, its masthead boasting “Oldest bee-paper in America” and “Established 1861” and “Chicago, Illinois,” which immediately made me wonder if it is still around. I was gratified to find the publication now a monthly but going strong 275 miles southwest of Chicago. Though winter is a quiet time for Illinois bees.
“Our bees are hunkered down,” Makovec said. They huddle within their hives in a ball, dislocate their wings and shiver to create heat, living off all that honey.
But that doesn’t mean Illinois bees aren’t busy — sorry — out in California, trucked there in mobile hives to service the almond crop.
“Some beekeepers are migratory,” Makovec said. “They take their colonies to the almonds. That’s where most of the money is, in commercial beekeeping.
So bees hives are like rolling insect brothels, wee migratory sex workers pulling into town to service the almond trees, then moving on to do cherries, apples, blueberries.
There’s more. I was tempted to run “Bee Week,” but that seemed an imposition upon your good nature.
Better to whet your appetite, bee-wise, then return to bees in spring. But for now, the news is good, despite COVID.
”There’s a widespread belief that bee populations are declining,” Makovec said. “That’s not really the case. They’ve been rising over the decade. There’s a resurgence in beekeeping, a lot of new urban and suburban beekeepers.”
Chicago is an ideal place to keep bees — it’s legal, if you register with the state (there are about 4,500 registered beekeepers in Illinois, most small scale hobbyists) — and Chicago’s City Hall has a rooftop hive.
One last question: Why keep bees?
“I enjoy it because I’m seeing another whole world that you don’t normally see,” Schnadt said. “To see them create something out of nothing, bringing nectar back, turning it into honey, the whole ecosystem. You notice flowers more, you notice water sources more, notice when a parking lot goes in where there used to be a clover field. A whole different natural world you don’t see normally, if you’re not into bees.”

Photo by Neil Steinberg
Four beehives at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Where there are flowers, there are usually bees somewhere nearby.

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