On May 22, three miles northwest of Aitkin, Ed Esler, a beekeeping hobbyist, drove across his farm to check on his apiary.
Esler has been a member of the Ripple River Bee Club since its inception, in the spring of 2014. His interest in beekeeping started when he was just 9 years old. “I helped my dad,” he said. “He always had bees.”
The Ripple River Bee Club, which has two dozen members, was founded by Jane Hill. In early 2014, Hill had moved into an old, four-season cabin in the area with five acres of land. “I can do something with these acres,” she thought to herself. She put an ad for a bee club meeting in the Aitkin Age. To her surprise, people showed up.
The club has officers, a charter and a booth at the Aitkin County Fair. The group holds meetings at the Aitkin Library on the third Thursday of the month. “The purpose is educational,” she said. “We want people to understand the importance of bees to agriculture and the food we put on our table.”
In 2017, the United Nations designated May 20 as World Bee Day, in order to raise awareness of the importance of bees and other pollinators (such as bats, butterflies and hummingbirds) to the world’s food supply. According to the United Nations, some 90% of all wild flowering plants and 75% of global food crops depend on animal pollination: “Not only do pollinators contribute directly to food security, but they are key to conserving biodiversity…. We all depend on pollinators and it is, therefore, crucial to monitor their decline and halt the loss.”
In short, healthy bees equal food security and biodiversity preservation.
Club members keep four types of bees: Russian, Italian, Carniolan and Saskatraz. Carniolan honey bees are known to swarm (i.e., split into one or more groups). Swarming can happen for a number of reasons, including overcrowding in the hive, lack of food or water, a problem with the queen, parasites or disease.
Club founder Jane Hill said, “Russian bees tend to be more aggressive and also more reliable and highly productive, but really the personality of the hive is determined by the queen.”
At the last club meeting, on Thursday, most members agreed that this year’s bees are very gentle.
Roger Sorben, one of the club’s newest members, has 50 hives. Like his clubmate Esler, Sorben got into bees at a very young age. “My dad would drag me along into the country to help one of the neighbors that had bees,” he said. “The neighbor had 700 hives.”
Honey yields vary year to year, explained Sorben. The most he has ever produced in one year was 3,000 pounds. Most years he hits around 1,000 pounds.
Nationally, Minnesota ranks seventh in the country for honey production, yielding about six million pounds of honey. The top honey-producing state, North Dakota, produced nearly 40 million pounds last year.
For the past six winters, Sorben has sent his bees to California to pollinate almond trees. Sending them to California is a gamble. There is always a chance that the bees won’t make the round trip. In general, almond tree pollen is very good for honey bees. Sorben looks forward to them coming back healthy and strong. “Then I can make divisions or splits in the spring,” he said. However, there are years where he has lost almost every hive he sent due to factors such as pesticides and disease. “Overall it averages out,” he said. “The ones that come back are really nice, strong and healthy.”
Every bee club meeting is an opportunity to learn something new: how to prevent disease and swarming, what materials are best to burn in your smoker (smoke is used to calm bees for handling), what bees to buy and where to get them.
Humans have been harvesting bee products for at least 10,000 years. Stone Age rock art and ancient Egyptian iconography dating back to 2,400 BCE and Neolithic pottery with wax fragments provide evidence of the early human-bee relationships. Hill, Esler, Sorben and the rest of the Ripple River Bee Club are helping to keep this tradition alive.