Hobbyists abuzz in learning beekeeping basics

Nearly 160 people from as far as Florida and Michigan spent the weekend buzzing around Borlaug Hall on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus learning beekeeping basics.
March 08, 2009

Nearly 160 people from as far as Florida and Michigan spent the weekend buzzing around Borlaug Hall on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus learning the basics of beekeeping.
The group of aspiring beekeepers was part of the “Beekeeping in Northern Climates” short course, a two-day program run annually out of the University extension office, which aims to teach beekeepers everything they need to know to get bee colonies up and running.
Entomology professor Marla Spivak , who helped teach the course, said while it’s possible for a beginning beekeeper to pick up the hobby on their own, learning the basics in a class or from a mentor makes it much easier.
“Beekeeping is an art and it’s a craft and it’s a science. It’s very difficult to learn from a book,” she said. “You can. But then people always end up coming back here.”
Even though he’s been keeping bees for years, Douglas Joyer said he took the course because he’s never had formal training and wanted to get a “modern perspective.”
“I’m here to brush up,” said Joyer, who works on a farm in Lino Lakes, Minn. “Everything that I’ve learned has been through family members.”
Joyer said he uses bees to help pollinate on his farm and was particularly interested in learning about disease issues in bees, which was covered extensively in the course.
Other lectures during the course dealt with bee biology, managing a hive and collecting honey from the bee colony.
Attendees were also introduced to the tools of the trade by Gary Reuter, a scientist in the entomology department.
“The first thing you’re probably going to want as a new beekeeper is some personal protection gear,” Reuter said as he showed off a bee suit and veil. “One of the most important things is that you feel safe.”
Trying to give 160 people a crash course in beekeeping over two days is tough, Reuter admitted, especially because the program has seen an explosion of interest, jumping from about 30 participants each year to having the class this year filled before the end of January.
Spivak said because the program has been around so long — extension courses in beekeeping have been taught at the University as far back as the 1920s — it now runs “like a well-oiled machine.”
The teachers try to keep it simple for the new beekeepers, Spivak said, by teaching them a beekeeping method they know works.
“We’re showing them one tried and true, kind of foolproof method to get them going for the first two years of beekeeping,” she said.
Jon Kniskern , one of many aspiring beekeepers in attendance, said “beekeeping is a new thing for me,” but he’s familiar with the insects.
“I’ve been stung many times,” he said.
Traveling all the way from Marquette, Mich., to spend a weekend with his daughter who is a University graduate student, and to take the beekeeping course, Kniskern said he’s planning on taking up beekeeping as something fun to do that also helps an important pollinator.
Spivak cited the benefits bees provide as pollinators to nearby gardens and farms, estimating the economic impact at $14 billion worth of agricultural commodities annually.
“People are just realizing that we need bees to pollinate gardens and fruit trees and wildflowers,” Spivak said. “It’s really important to keep bees out there.”

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