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Benefit of bees: Raise your own pollinators, reap a sweet harvest
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Benefit of Bees

Benefit of bees: Raise your own pollinators, reap a sweet harvest

The buzz about honeybees in recent years has been about their vanishing act from gardens and farm fields.

But new ranks of backyard beekeepers are trying to ease that scarcity, or at least have enough pollinators to produce a honey of a harvest.

And it's not just about the fields of the countryside. Even urban landscapes offer opportunities for beekeepers.

Gerry Wozniak, 53, of Chicago is a beekeeper with an interest in the hobby for more than three decades.

"My college roommate while I was going to Loyola had a dad who did beekeeping and that's where my interest started," said Wozniak, who owns Condor Machine Tool Co. next to Midway Airport in Chicago.

"I became much more serious about bees about 10 years ago and now, I house my hives on the roof of my building. There are thousands of flowering plants and blooming landscapes around the airport that attract bees."

Like so many beekeepers, Wozniak has lost entire colonies in recent years.

So when he received a call from the City of Chicago about a natural honeybee colony that decided to adopt the opening in a large maple tree near a school and park just minutes from his business, he was happy to adopt the hive.

"There were about 50,000 bees that arrived overnight on Sept. 9, and because the location was so close to the Nathan Hale School and sidewalk area around 61st and Melvina Ave., the hive needed to be relocated as soon as possible," Wozniak said.

With the help of his fellow beekeeping hobbyist Dr. Jerry Coltro, a physician at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Wozniak spent the next two days trying to "woo" the bees to transfer their hive operations to a provided man-made stacked hive he erected next to the tree.

"If you remember what the weather was like over that weekend of Sept. 11th, it was pretty hot and the bees can get easily agitated," Wozniak said.

"So we worked mostly during the evening hours and used smokers to calm the colony while we worked to assess the situation. The key is to get the Queen Bee to adopt the new hive. Once that happens, the rest of the colony follows."

By 5 a.m., Wozniak was able to detect the Queen had moved to the new surroundings and swarming subjects followed.

"We knew we had her inside just by monitoring the behavior of the other bees," Wozniak said.

"We shrink-wrapped the hive with the bees inside and moved it down the street to its new home on my building's rooftop."

Bees are the necessary germinating link between blossoms and fruit. They pollinate one-third of the world's produce, a service worth some $70 billion per year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

Yet a combination of factors including pesticides, habitat loss, pollution, disease and pests have all but eliminated wild honeybee populations nationwide, along with about 30 percent of the managed honeybee colonies, according to USDA estimates.

Enter the more than 211,000 bee hobbyists, like Wozniak and Coltro, around the United States. Along with the entertainment value that the insects provide, the beekeepers also harvest honey, pollen and beeswax from their hives.

"Feral bees have pretty much died out, so if you don't have someone with bees nearby, your squash and tomatoes, orchards and nut crops won't get pollinated," said Edd Buchanan, a fourth-generation beekeeper from Black Mountain, N.C.

"It does pay for itself over a period of time. With just one hive, you can produce all the honey you want to eat, give some to your neighbors at Christmas plus get your investment back."

At least a pound of worker bees and a queen are needed to make a productive apiary, said Buchanan, who got his start 35 years ago by swapping an old lawnmower for an established hive.

"There are about 3,500 bees to a pound," he said.

"That'll cost you anywhere from $75 to $90."

Another way to buy bees is with a "nuc," or nucleus hive.

That includes a queen, worker bees and a starter brood shipped in a wooden box. Prices generally run $110 to $120. Most are available via mail order, the Internet or from fellow beekeepers.

Italian bees (Apis mellifera ligustica) are the favorites, given their reputation for gentleness, cleanliness, disease resistance and energy.

"Bees are so much more important than so many people remember to realize, since they are responsible for all our fruits and vegetables because of their pollination," Wozniak said.

"We need them, more than they need us."

(Associated Press Writer Dean Fosdick contributed to this story.)




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