A salute to bees, their keepers and all things honey

Holly Robertson of Five R Farm in rural Grundy County is pictured near her hive on a recent day in late September which is celebrated annually as National Honey Month. Robertson along with her husband Ben produce fresh fruits and vegetables on their farm to sell at local farmers markets and floral shops and are highly dependent upon pollinators like the honey bee to do so. Photo by Soren M. Peterson

For a one-ingredient recipe made by bees, honey cannot be beat.

September was National Honey Month — first celebrated in 1989 by the National Honey Board — a time when many honey producers and beekeepers across the United States collect their final extraction of the season and begin to think about preparing their hives for winter.

Rural Reinbeck beekeeper Holly Robertson — along with her husband Ben Robertson — of Five R Farm was busy doing just that the last week in September.

“It is an accomplishment to keep [your hive] alive through the winter,” Robertson said while standing a few yards from her bees on Tuesday, September 28.

Last winter, Robertson encountered some bad luck — an American pygmy shrew cozied up in her hive.

Honey bees cluster outside Holly Robertson’s hive on Five R Farm in rural Reinbeck on a recent warm day. National Honey Month is celebrated annually by beekeepers and honey producers across the United States in the month of September. Photo by Soren M. Peterson

“I have just one hive now, I had two before this, but last winter when we opened a hive there were thousands of decapitated bees.”

Hive predation by a shrew can be devastating to a beekeeper and Robertson was no exception.

Bees cluster in the winter around the queen to create heat, Robertson said, creating a perfect environment for a shrew to camp out in while the winds blow cold.

One by one — as the winter wears on — a shrew will pick off bees to eat like it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet.

But Robertson — who only began keeping bees in 2019 after taking a class at Hawkeye Community College — wasn’t about to give up, starting all over again this past spring with some sweet results.

A sampling of the bee forage planted by Holly and Ben Robertson on their farm in rural Grundy County. Photo by Soren M. Peterson

“The second round of honey [this season] was darker, but everyone says it tastes light and delicious,” Robertson said.

The Robertsons sell their raw honey at the local Reinbeck Farmers Market alongside their fresh flowers and vegetables — the latter of which need bees.

“We grow certain vegetables that need cross pollination,” Robertson said.

Losing an entire hive and starting over is not necessarily something every beekeeper would choose to do, Jim Dolezal of both Dolezal Honey Bees and the Tama County Bee Keepers club said recently.

“It seems like more people are [keeping bees in Tama County today]. The interest in beekeeping has grown [but] bees are a challenge and when [a beekeeper] loses a hive, they [lose a lot].”

A dahlia blooms on Five R Farm near Reinbeck. Photo by Soren M. Peterson

Dolezal said for every Tama County every beekeeper — from hobbyists to larger producers — that leaves the field for whatever reason, another one tends to take their place which is good for everyone, especially those Iowans who like to visit pumpkin patches and apple orchards in the fall.

“There’s a lot of plants out there [that require pollination]. We do some pollination service to apple orchards and pumpkin patches. That’s why it’s a major concern [to lose bees].”

According to a July 2021 blog posting by the United States Department of Agriculture, “Beginning in 2006, experts noted significant yearly declines in honey bee colonies. … Years of research determined the decline was likely attributable to a wide range of stressors such as pests, diseases, pesticides, pollutants/toxins, nutritional deficits, habitat loss, effects of climate variability, agricultural production intensification, reduced species or genetic diversity, and pollinator or crop management practices.”

And it’s not just bees — worldwide, the insect population has been on the decline which is never good news in an agricultural state like Iowa that relies on pollinators for many of its crops including some grown for livestock consumption.

According to a press kit put out by the National Honey Board, “The production of most beef and dairy products consumed in the United States is dependent on insect-pollinated legumes (alfalfa, clover, etc.). Although alfalfa hay does not require insect pollination, it is grown from seed that is entirely dependent on insect pollination. Honey bees are one of the pollinators used to pollinate alfalfa fields for seed production.”

Those dainty, purple flowers put out each season by the alfalfa plant ultimately could not exist without pollinators.

“There’s so many benefits to bees,” Robertson said while her husband Ben worked in their dahlia garden among dozens of insects — including honeybees and a rather noisy bumblebee.

“We’re helping out the bee world by trying.”

And making it sweeter along the way.

Jim Dolezal recommends those interested in beekeeping take a class like Robertson did and pair up with an experienced beekeeping mentor by joining a local beekeeping club.

The Tama County Bee Keepers club meets four times a year — their next meeting is set for the end of October.

More information can be found at https://www.iowahoneyproducers.org/iowa-beekeeping-clubs.