Keeping honeybees is good for the planet, good for the palate and good for the soul.
Tom Allen of Rapid City became a beekeeper this year and cannot say enough good things about the benefits of having bees.
“First you have the satisfaction of helping maintain a population of honeybees that are so vital to our food sources,” he said.
Bees, which are responsible for pollinating the plants and trees, are in serious decline in the country.
“So much of our food supply is directly attributed to the success of the bee, not just honeybees,” he said.
Bees pollinate one-third of the world’s produce. If you have a garden, having your own bees will improve the output, Allen said.
As a honey lover, Allen said he is looking forward to the day that his hives produce enough honey for him. But beekeepers must first make sure their hive has produced enough honey for the bees to survive over the winter.
Just as important, keeping bees is just plain fun, he said. “They’re so interesting to watch. You could just pull up a lawn chair and watch them come and go and be excited about the different colors of pollen that they bring back,” he said.
Allen, who has always been interested in bees, became serious about the hobby while working on the educational bee hive kept in the Kiwanis Mary Hall Park with Jerry Owens, who started the Wannabe a Hobby Beekeeper Club.
Owens, who lives in Rapid City, also owns ADR Bees, through which he sells beekeeping equipment. Allen became a member of the bee club in January.
Owens said beekeeping is become more popular in the Black Hills every year.
“Once you get bees, you become utterly fascinated,” Owens said. “They are so interesting and so multifaceted. I don’t know if you will ever learn everything about them.”
He said when he started the club two years ago, there were very few hobby beekeepers in the area.
“Since then, we have enticed about 120 people to become beekeepers. We have more than 200 people who are interested and have some type of a commitment with us to follow the bees. It’s turned into quite a deal,” he said.
Owens said keeping bees is a lot like getting a cat or a dog — once you have them, you have the responsibility of taking care of them and making sure the colony stays healthy.
A lot of the hobbyists have just one hive, he said, and people with one hive rarely have enough honey to do much selling.
Owens has several hives and sells honey.
Nicole Preble of Rapid City said it was one of Owens’ jars of honey that she purchased that turned her into a beekeeper.
“It was the best honey I’d ever eaten,” she said.
This is her second year keeping bees. She said the bees in her first hive died over that first winter. She guesses they died from exposure and not starvation, because the hive was still full of honey. She is hoping to have better luck this year with her three hives. She keeps two at her mother-in-law’s and the third in Rapid Valley.
Like other beekeepers, Preble has become enamored with the flying insects.
“The more I learn, the more interesting they become. They are absolutely amazing creatures,” she said.
She said raising public awareness about the importance of bees is key, particularly with the decline of the bees.
“People will call up and say they have a swarm of bees, and their first thought is to kill it. That would be a horrible thing to do,” she said.
Preble said honeybees are actually very docile and “are nice to you if you are nice to them.”
“When I talk to people about bees, they say, ‘I got stung by a bee, so I hate bees,’” she said. “Generally it’s wasps that sting. Bees aren’t aggressive unless you are entering their hives.”
She said after a bee stings you, it dies, but wasps can sting repeatedly.
Allen said honeybees will sting only as a last resort if they think their hive is in danger.
“It’s one for all because everything is about the colony. Everything is about their own home. It’s really selfless,” he said.
The worker bees — the ones that go out and gather the pollen — live for just five or six short weeks.
“They physically work themselves to death,” Allen said.
The queens can live for a couple of years.
Allen said to get started in beekeeping, you will need to buy a hive, which consists of two or three or more boxes of different dimensions. He paid $85 for a box with four frames of bees, which included the queen and between 10,000 to 20,000 worker bees.
With the safety gear, his total investment was between $200 and $300.
He said Owens is the local supplier for beekeeping equipment.
Preble, who is also a member of Owens’ club, said it is an informative group where the members learn from each other.
“Everybody has a different experience, so we learn from everybody. It’s a very good club.”