With the return of spring, Duane Rekeweg expects the return of millions of honeybees to the family honey farm at Decatur. He can predict their return from California to within an hour, because they’re returning by truck.
The Rekeweg family maintains about 500 hives, which can hold 80,000 bees each by August. The bees ride to California for the almond pollination season over the winter. Back in Indiana, they pollinate clover and strawberries and a host of other plants.
“The bees don’t really get a break,” Rekeweg said.
Rekeweg organized a recent Northeast Indiana Beekeepers Association class at the Classic Cafe’ in Fort Wayne.
Beginning beekeepers Fran Martin and her daughter, Torree Pepple, have more conservative plans for the 2017 honey season. Martin, of Waterloo, and Pepple, of Auburn, bought their first bee box and assembled it at that workshop. They ordered bees, too, at $96 for a 3-pound pack.
Rekeweg represents the busiest of the professional beekeepers at the workshop. Martin and Pepple were among the small-scale apiarists. But Rekeweg, a half-dozen mentors and the 42 beginners shared the same awareness of the embattled bee and the same concern for its survival.
“I know they’re having a hard time with the bee population, and for me that’s a big part of it,” Pepple said. “I went to school for wildlife studies and I’m really into environmental things and our planet and doing our part.”
Martin said she visited a beekeepers association booth at the Fort Wayne Home & Garden Show two years ago. “There I learned about the environment, which makes me want to go ahead with it,” she said.
Martin and Pepple said they think it will be a fun hobby, and said they will enjoy the honey. Each, however, listed environmental concerns first. They plan to buy a second pack of bees, too. Martin’s husband will build another box.
Beekeeper James Wheeler IV of Bluffton said that concern is well founded. A generation ago everyone knew a beekeeper, he said. “You would buy honey from the local guy, or your uncle had bees or your grandpa had been. And then there was a span of about 30 or 40 years when no one raised bees,” he said.
But beekeeping is enjoying a comeback, said Wheeler, who sells beekeeping supplies, boxes and kits such as those that were assembled at the workshop.
“With the plight of what’s happening to the honeybee, everyone wants to get on board to help, whether it’s five to seven hives or 600, everyone wants to help with the honeybees,” he said. “They say up to 80 percent of what you eat is brought to you because of the honeybee, whether that is pollinating any of the clover that the cow ate, or the almonds, or the citrus. Everyone is trying to understand that more and is wanting to help out.”
Entire hives die off and seem to vanish, an event that Wheeler and his peers call colony collapse. “There are a handful of different causes,” he said, with special emphasis on a parasitic mite that he called the Varroa destructor. The combination of mites and other environmental dangers can overwhelm the bees, he said. “The bee can handle so much insecticide, but if it gets the mite, it’s dead,” he said.
Terry Clancy, the owner of Classic Cafe, hosts the group’s meetings, which draw perhaps 200 members each month. He also maintains a single hive, in a sheltered area between Hillegas Road and Interstate 69. “I’m the hobbyist,” he said. “I got 300 pounds of honey last year. We use it in the operation and I give it to family and friends.”
Wheeler said even city residents may enjoy the hobby. In Fort Wayne, the limit is two colonies per yard, he said. “We’re so lucky with this organization in that we have a huge mentor list. There are over 40 people who have signed up to be mentors,” he said.
Wheeler maintains about 70 colonies at seven locations.
Wheeler also helped teach the March workshop, donning a beekeeper suit and demonstrating how to salvage a bee box after the bees die. Rake the dead bees out of the box, but leave the honeycomb and any honey for the next bees, he said.
Ned Gatchell, of Fort Wayne, demonstrated how to use a smoker to calm the bees when the box is opened to harvest honey. The smoker will stay lit until just before you need it, he said. Gatchell is one of 30 mentors available to the 400-member organization.
The NEIBA holds a three-part workshop each March, just before the bees’ busy season. But a $15 annual fee entitles the member to instructional meetings at 7 p.m. the third Thursday of each month at the Classic Cafe, 4832 Hillegas Road, Fort Wayne. For details, visit neiba.info. The group also has contacts for swarm removal, bee mentoring, and suppliers.
On Saturday, May 13, the group will adjourn to Buskirk Engineering in Ossian for a hands-on field day.
Rekeweg got into the honey business in 1981, buying out his 94-year-old grandfather’s 17 hives for about $35 each. The hives now cost about $150 each, he said.
His colleagues said the beekeeping school is Rekeweg’s brainchild and is in about its 20th year.
His son took over the business about a year ago, but Rekeweg stays close to the operation.
“The bees are all in California right now for almond pollination,” he said. “There are about 6.8 million beehives that go into California for almond pollination and they all go back where they came from after almonds are done blooming.
“Back in Indiana, the bees will pollinate the alfalfa, the melons, the pickles, the fruit trees, basswood, goldenrod and strawberries.”
The bees pollinate clover, too, and so are vital to the beef and dairy industries, he said.
Rekeweg said the bees were scheduled to leave California on April 4. The entire cargo area will be wrapped in fine-mesh netting. Very fine mesh.
Back in Indiana, the boxes will be distributed to fields in Adams, Allen and Wells counties, about 16 boxes per location. “We’re always looking for more locations to put bees. You always lose some, you always gain some every year — changing property owners or whatever,” he said.
“Honey is actually the nectar the blossom secretes, and it says to the honeybee ‘Come and get my nectar’ and while they’re there they spread around the pollen that fertilizes the blossoms so we get a cherry or a watermelon,” he said. During the busy season, he will “pull honey” from the hives twice a week, as he has been doing for more than 35 years. “It just gets in your blood after a while,” he said.
The Rekewegs’ honey products are available at Rural King in Fort Wayne.
Rekeweg will harvest the hive’s surplus, leaving enough to warm and feed the hive until spring brings warmer temperatures and more blossoms.
The American honey industry depends on the Italian honeybee, he said. He’s not sure of the history of the species. “They’ve been here forever, before we even had visas,” he said.
Bumblebees fill a role, too, he said. “Bumblebees are needed to do some pollination because their tongue is longer. A red clover blossom is a big blossom and a honeybee cannot pollinate that because their tongue is not long enough,” he said.
Few predators threaten honey in Indiana. “Bear is the one that we hear the most about in other parts of the country,” he said. “But if a hive is not strong enough yellow jackets will eventually take it over and take the honey.
“It’s kind of hard to find a good use for yellow jackets. But they do clean up carcasses and things like that.”