Building a beekeeping operation

Beekeeping is a practice that’s somewhat difficult to master. It’s also a practice that’s not especially common. But in recent years, however, more and more people in northwest Iowa have gotten into beekeeping, including Paul Van Roekel of George.

“We’ve used raw honey for years,” said Van Roekel. He said his wife previously bought the honey from a person in Ocheyedan and after that from a guy near Ellsworth, Minnesota. “My wife always told me I should get bees, and I said ‘No, as long as we can buy it from someone local, I’m not going to mess with it,’ because it’s basically like another livestock operation.”

Van Roekel and his family live on a farm on the south edge of George, and the busy life of a farmer and the fact that honey was locally available made Van Roekel hesitant to get into beekeeping himself. Things changed about four or five years ago when their supplier in Ellsworth decided to cut back.

“He wasn’t producing enough to supply as much as we need because we go through 10-15 gallons of honey a year,” said Van Roekel. He explained that the reason they go through so much honey is because his son is on a special diet. “He’s not supposed to have sugar but he can have honey, so my wife uses honey instead of sugar to sweeten everything, so that’s why we go through so much honey.”

Van Roekel decided to take up beekeeping, although he was still somewhat reluctant about it all. “There was a man in town who took a class and got two or three hives, and he asked if he could put them at my place, so I said ‘Sure’.” The next year he got the opportunity to get some of his own beehives from a guy in Wisconsin, but his own operation didn’t get off to the best start.

“We did everything kind of wrong that first year. There were three of us who had gotten hives from there, and only one of us had taken a class on beekeeping, so we certainly weren’t experts. We didn’t treat for mites and we didn’t know how to winter the bees properly. So that first year I lost them all,” said Van Roekel, referring to his bees and their hives.

He did a little better in his second year after purchasing four starting hives, which beekeepers call “nukes.” Those hives produced about 15 gallons of honey. “I thought that was pretty good. It was fine because it was enough to get us through the year.”

Although he managed to get his operation off the ground, Van Roekel said that he’s still learning and he’s not the only one. “There are guys who have been doing this for decades and they’re still learning. Bees can throw a curve at you every year.” He said having bees can be a little like having livestock, in which you’re at the mercy of mother nature and a lot of other outdoor variables.

Winter can be an especially difficult challenge for beekeepers. Van Roekel built an insulated bee house on the south side of his barn where he can put the hives during the winter, but he said other beekeepers will simply choose to leave their hives in boxes outside and cover the boxes with insulation. “If you don’t have an inside facility like I do, then most people will insulate the boxes that the hives come in, and the bees will keep it warm inside.”

Bees can keep an insulated hive above 85 degrees in the wintertime, no matter what the temperature is outside. “They will protect that queen bee. The worker bees will keep that queen warm no matter what. They won’t stop to eat if it’s borderline,” explained Van Roekel.

Simply having a bee house doesn’t erase the challenge that winter presents, however. Van Roekel said he lost a hive in April 2016 due to cold weather. “I was kind of proud that I’d gotten them through the deep part of the winter and then April came and I lost one.” He got another four or five hives after that but had some trouble transporting them. Two of the hives died, after which he was left with six hives. One of the six hives was pretty weak at the onset of this past winter, but he managed to keep it going and he said the hive has now become a lot stronger this spring, partially due to a self-proclaimed mistake he made.

“I took the bees out this spring but kept them by the barn instead of moving them to their usual location. That was a mistake,” he said with a laugh. He explained that because he left the hives close to the barn, the bees became acclimated to that location and didn’t want to leave that area even after he moved the hives. He corrected the mistake by putting all of the hives back into the barn for another week, and then moving all of them — except the weakest one — to their outdoor space.

Some of the bees kept going back to the barn still, but this time it paid off. “Because the weak hive was the only one there, the bees made it a lot stronger,” said Van Roekel. The last step he took was moving the weak hive several miles away before placing it back with the others. The bees kept flying to the weak hive and it finally became just as strong as the other five.

Van Roekel does his best to regularly attend a beekeeping club that meets in Orange City, and he’s recently begun splitting his time with that group and another smaller group that’s begun meeting in Larchwood. “We have between 40 and 50 people meeting in Orange City every month. In Larchwood they didn’t have a very good turnout this last month, but the two other times I was there they had between a half dozen and a dozen people there, so it’s building.”

Many of the other area beekeepers are folks who live in town, so Van Roekel said he brings a bit of a different perspective to their meetings “because you don’t see as many farmers in beekeeping as you do hobbyists,” he explained.

Beekeepers and farmers are sometimes at odds with each other, but Van Roekel said that most people around here are pretty cooperative. “I think the more people who are aware of what beekeepers are doing and trying to do, the better. Communication is everything. For example, if you go to the farmer who lives next to you and tell him that you have bees and tell him a few things to avoid, most of them will try.”

While Van Roekel likens beekeeping to having another livestock operation, he said that it’s not nearly as time-consuming as hogs or cattle. “But it does take some time, and it is another operation that you have to keep on top of,” he said. “If you’re going to order bees for the year, you have to order them in January or February to make sure you get them on time. In the early spring before everything starts blooming, you have to feed them well, and that’s probably one of the most critical times when you have to check them more often.”

Van Roekel feeds his bees with the same beet syrup he uses on his crops. He said most other beekeepers buy cane sugar and mix it with water.

Another way beekeeping is similar to a livestock operation is that each year is different. “Last year was exceptionally good for me because we had enough rain to keep everything blooming and green but it was also sunny enough for the bees to fly a lot. If it’s too cloudy or too cold and rainy, they don’t fly very much and you don’t get much honey,” explained Van Roekel.

Van Roekel said he enjoys beekeeping more than he thought he would. “It’s kind of like having a garden. It’s your own, and you eat your own produce. But again, it’s something that takes time, and you kind of have to balance how much time you have with what you can do. And it’s something where I’m always learning something new, but I don’t mind it.”

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