Indiana Has A Great Bee School For Beginners, But Nearly Everywhere Has One. Find Yours This Fall Or Spring.
By: Ryan Trares
Buzz filled the hallways and classrooms of Decatur Central High School – Indiana Bee School was in session.
First-time beekeepers learned how to identify a queen bee in their hives and how to don a hood to avoid stings.
More advanced students listened as world-class experts demonstrated how to rear healthy queens. They discovered secondary pests of bees, such as wax moths and zombie flies.
Beekeepers from all over the state swarmed to the 14th annual Indiana Bee School last February. The day-long seminar offered a one-stop learning environment for everything from proper hive management to bee behavior and honey extraction.
While the focus is on education, it also gives bee enthusiasts a chance to catch up on the past year’s honey harvest, hive health and overall bee activity.
“It’s an exciting time in beekeeping. We keep getting more beekeepers all of the time,” said Dave Shenefield, president of The Beekeepers of Indiana. “New bee clubs are forming all of the time. That means we have a responsibility. It’s up to us to educate people.”
The bee school is an annual event organized by The Beekeepers of Indiana, the state’s main apiary organization. The group is composed of two separate beekeeping associations that joined together in late 2015, and this session of bee school was the first time everyone would be gathering as one.
Attendees arrive around 8:00 a.m. and stay for the entire day. A group lunch is included, as are social events such as a silent auction, a live auction and a raffle. More than 1,000 people attend the bee school, with another 200 who wanted to come but didn’t get tickets before it sold out, Shenefield said.
Andrew Gray and Melia White of Indianapolis came to glean what they could about raising bees. Gray knew a friend who had bees and thought it would be fun to try to start his own hive.
They had joined a small bee club in Mooresville, where the members encouraged them to attend bee school.
“We didn’t know anything about it but thought it was a great resource,” he said. “It’s been very informational so far. A lot of people have talked this up.”
The main goal of the bee school is to make new keepers comfortable with the hobby and to ensure they have that initial success to stick with it, said Mike Seib, one of the school’s coordinators.
Such a large number of beginners had signed up that three full classes for newbies were offered, each class comprised of four sessions during the day.
“Honey bees are having a lot of trouble surviving in the current environment, with more chemicals and more pests coming in,” Seib said. “People are getting involved in beekeeping, and they’re getting discouraged if they buy their bees and they die that first year. We are trying to show them how to prevent that.”
Orleans beekeeper Rebecca Eldridge has been raising honey since she was a young girl. The 19-year-old was an award-winning young beekeeper in 2010 and was named the state’s Honey Queen in 2015.
Despite her years of experience, she remembers what it was like when she first started keeping bees.
“It’s really a beautiful thing to start to see these things,” she said. “It’s fantastic to see how bees take care of their colony.”
Eldridge walked people through honey bee biology, identifying drones and workers and the bee life cycle. She helped explain the best ways to start a hive, either through a nucleus colony or a shipped package of bees.
Explaining the “waggle dance,” she showed how bees let each other know where the best flowers are.
But one of her best pieces of advice was the reality of keeping bees.
“You will get stung. Sorry to burst your bubble,” she said. “I’ve heard one beekeeper say we’re part of an extreme sport, and that’s true.”
Nearly 20 experts and guest speakers appeared throughout the day, highlighted by keynote speaker Kim Flottum. A researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Honey Bee Research Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, Flottum focused on honey bee nutrition and diseases.
In his course on making honey, Flottum emphasized the importance of plotting where your bees would be searching for food. Using simple technology such as Google Maps, you can make sure your hives are within flying distance to forests and other sources of pollen to ensure a good honey harvest.
At the same time, it is imperative to keep track of the queen, when she’d be laying eggs, and when the hive population would peak.
“You absolutely have to know what your queen is doing,” he said. “No exceptions, no excuses.”
In another classroom, Kathleen Prough made sure beekeepers were aware of secondary pests that can wreak havoc on the hives. Indiana in particular has a big problem with yellow jackets which can invade a hive and take over.
“They take advantage of a weak hive. They’re opportunistic little monsters,” Prough said.
The Franklin resident is the chief apiary inspector with the state Department of Natural Resources, inspecting all of the hives in the state. She has seen what makes a hive successful and the mistakes that cause beekeepers to lose bees. That’s why programs such as the bee school are so important.
“Education helps everybody, and it helps with beekeepers. It’s nice to have a place where you can go and learn about beekeeping, the different things you need to know, what you need to be aware of,” she said. “You should always be trying to learn something new. You should always be learning. This is a good chance for people to get here and learn something new.”
When keepers weren’t in class, they were browsing through the bazaar-like marketplace set up for everything bee-related.
Vendors sell everything from books to honey molds to protective gear. Beekeepers offered honey sticks, butter-whipped honey and raw honey straight from the hives.
New apiarists could pick up hand-crafted hives for their emerging operation, while established keepers checked out the latest mite repellent to keep their bees healthy.
Juanita Graham, co-owner of Graham’s Bee Works in Morgantown, stood behind her table, unloading equipment and getting ready for a day’s worth of beekeeping questions.
Her table displayed a wide array of beekeeping literature, tools and other supplies. One of their biggest features was a selection of nucs – nucleus colonies that people can use to start a new hive.
Graham has been attending the bee school since the first session in 2002. The event offers a chance to connect with the beekeeping community from all across the state, all in one place.
“We’ve been doing this since 1994, and I’ve found that beekeepers are the most honest, good-hearted people,” she said. “This is a great group of people to be involved with.”
Ryan Trares is a staff writer for the Daily Journal.