Kent Pegorsch’s introduction to beekeeping left quite an impact on him, and it wasn’t a bee sting.
"In the United States, more people die from being struck by lightning than from being stung by a honeybee," he said.
Pegorsch says the honeybee is a lot different than other stingers like wasps and hornets, because honeybees "just aren’t aggressive."
In fact, never in his beekeeping career has he had bees that are as gentle as they are now.
Pegorsch has been keeping honeybees since 1976.
He was in high school when the late Bob Lind, of Manawa, got him started.
Lind was the father of one of Pegorsch’s friends and had honeybees.
"I went from basically one hive to five hives to 125 to 325 by the time I was 19," Pegorsch said.
He got into beekeeping for the entrepreneurial aspect of it.
"It was purely about honey products," Pegorsch said.
Today, he has a total of 70 hives – some just outside of Waupaca and others near Sheridan.
Right now, there are about three pounds of bees per hive.
There are approximately 3,500 bees to a pound, so that equals a lot of bees.
By July and August, he hopes to have been between 10 and 20 pounds of bees per hive.
Each queen is constantly laying eggs.
"In the summer, thousands of bees are coming and going all day long," Pegorsch said.
During the day, the worker bees search for food – nectar and pollen from flowers – and in the process serve as a pollinator.
Pegorsch said that when the temperature is between 50 and 60 degrees, the honeybees come out of their hives. In the winter, they may do so when the temperature reaches into the 30s.
"They know exactly which hives to return to," he said. "They eat the nectar/honey. Their wax glands secrete wax particles, and then they use those particles to build the cells."
Pegorsch’s newest bees arrived on April 7, to replace the hives that did not make it through the winter and to expand his hives.
They came on a truck from California, eating a sugar syrup. "When they don’t have access to food, they would starve pretty quickly," he said.
After arriving here, they were placed into hives.
"When they are first put in hives, they do a bit of orientation flights in the area to get used to where the hive is," Pegorsch explained.
It is the scout bees that head out to locate the sources of nectar and pollen.
"They come back and tell the bees with a dance on the comb," he said. "It tells the workers where the honey source is in relation to the sun."
Because nectar has a high-moisture content, the house bees fan their wings to evaporate the moisture out of the nectar, Pegorsch said.
In August, he harvests the honey in the honeyhouse that he built in 1990.
During the winter, his bees cluster into a tight ball – about the size of a basketball – to keep themselves and their queen warm.
"They basically just eat honey to stay alive," he said. "By February/March, the queen starts laying eggs again and the hive starts expanding in numbers again."
During his many years in beekeeping, Pegorsch has seen Colony Collapse Disorder take a heavy toll on honeybees in the United States.
He said there are many theories as to what is causing it.
The underlying reason may be changes in the industry.
Like farming, beekeeping has been in the trend of monoculture, which means that in this country, most honeybees are trucked around the United States, from one pollination contract to the next, he said.
One example is the almond industry.
Pegorsch said 2/3 of every commercial colony in the United States goes to California in February or March for the pollination of almonds, an industry that has become very popular during the last 10 years.
This puts a lot of stress on the colonies, while also causing hives to succumb to pests, diseases and viruses.
"You’re bringing all the bees in one area. You’re bringing all diseases, diversity into one area," he said. "You’re further losing the diversity of the colony."
Parasitic varroa mites that live on honeybees and shorten their lives are also a contributing factor.
And, Pegorsch said that while the theory is unproven, many beekeepers believe that new types of systematic pesticides, which are being used on crops, may also be causing Colony Collapse Disorder.
"We’ve lost so many colonies, from whatever’s causing it that basically, there are no wild honeybees left," he said. "And, we’ve lost all the genetic diversity of the honeybees."
In the 1940s, there were about 5 million colonies of honeybees in the United States, while today there are between 2.5 and 3 million colonies, Pegorsch said.
Most of the commercial colonies are involved in cross-country pollination that begins in the fall when they are shipped to warmer climates like California and fed corn syrup until pollination begins in the spring, he said.
Pegorsch said his hives have not been directly affected by Colony Collapse Disorder but added that the ability of all bees to survive winters in the northern climates has been adversely affected by the loss of genetic adversity nationwide due to the millions of colonies lost.
When asked what can be done to help protect honeybees, Pegorsch said it is difficult to say, because the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is not known.
He said some things being done are using management practices to keep the number of varroa mites in the hive to a minimum and replacing older queens with younger queens.
"Queens can live up to five years, but usually the colony will replace the queens in the second or third year. By the beekeeper replacing the queen on a regular basis, we can be sure the colony is headed by a healthy, properly mated queen of known genetics," he said. "Pesticides are still a ‘moving target.’ We don’t know how to counteract those if they are indeed a major factor."
Pegorsch keeps his hives away from large crop fields.
He said the beekeeping industry has expanded to keep up with pollination needs.
An interesting trend he has seen is the increase in the popularity of backyard beekeeping.
"Having been a beekeeper for so long, I have seen the hobby go from popularity in the 1970s, become less popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now increase again," he says.
He and his wife Bernadette seem to run into beekeepers everywhere, including at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Chicago, where the hotel’s head chef gave them a tour of the hotel’s rooftop hives.
His honeybees make about 5,000 pounds of honey a year, which is then sold at their gift shop, Main Street Marketplace in downtown Waupaca.
He sells the beeswax to processors for cosmetics and candles.
"As long as I’ve been keeping bees, and it’s usually been in the Waupaca area, my customers always say it has a unique flavor," he said.
He attributes that flavor to all the wildflowers.
Most of the honeybees in his hives are of Italian descent. He chose the breed specifically because of their characteristics.
"Italian bees are gentle," he said. "I always run some Russian-descent bees, because they are supposed to winter well."
Pegorsch said an active Waupaca County Beekeepers Association meets at 7 p.m. on the third Wednesday of most months at the Iola Community Center.
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