January 18, 2022

Beekeeper: Tending hives is fun despite occasional stings

BERNARD, Iowa (AP) — Chris Puetz spends about three hours every Saturday tending to his hives.

“It’s a time commitment, but it’s time I block out, and it’s fun,” Puetz said.

Puetz has been a hobbyist beekeeper for about three years. He tends to 10 hives of honeybees on a farm near Bernard.

“It’s a fun hobby — sometimes a little painful — but harvesting honey is always fun because it’s the rewards of the work,” he said.

Paula Wolfe, of Dubuque, operates Sweet P Creative, a company that sells locally produced, gourmet honey. She became a beekeeper in 2014.

“Bees have been good to me — in between stings,” she told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. “I connect with bees. They are fascinating, and I respect their industriousness.”

There are about 5,000 beekeepers raising honeybees in Iowa, according to Iowa State University. Many, like Puetz, took up raising bees as a hobby.

“My little brother was like, ‘I think I want to get bees,’” Puetz said. “And I was like, ‘Really.’ That was three years ago, and I said I would jump in with him. We ended up going to a class at NICC. We ordered our first two hives after that.”

‘You Can’t Fence Them In’

Puetz faced frustration early in the hobby.

“That first year was rough,” he said. “Our bees didn’t even make it to winter. We had one whole hive just up and fly away.”

Bees are wild animals, Wolfe said, and if they want to leave, they will.

“You can’t fence them in,” she said. “I’ve had a fair amount of heartache because losing hives is devastating.”

Puetz orders bees from a larger producer.

“They split their hives off and create packages, and they will sell them,” he said. “You can buy those for anywhere from $125 to $175 per package of bees, which they call a nuc. You install them into your hives. You drive to Des Moines, pick up your bees, come back, put them in their hive that day, and then you pray they don’t fly away on you.”

“I didn’t know much about beekeeping and I just fell into it; it was serendipitous,” Wolfe said. “I started to learn about it. The biggest challenge was getting set up. It is an investment in time and an investment in equipment.”

Randall Cass, an extension entomologist with Iowa State who specializes in honeybees and other pollinators, suggests people considering taking up the hobby prepare themselves for the time and financial commitments.

“Beekeeping is fun and exciting, and my advice is make sure you are ready for the time and costs associated with learning to become a good beekeeper and with maintaining hives,” Cass said.

Cass said hives include larger hive boxes called deeps, shallower hive boxes called honey supers, frames, bottom boards and hive covers.

Beekeepers typically protect themselves from stings with veils that can be placed over hats or suits that cover the entire body.

“Obviously, you need protective gear,” Puetz said. “Getting stung is not fun, and getting stung in the face is even less fun. A couple of hives’ equipment is going to cost $200, and your bees are going to be about $300. Your protective stuff, like your suit and your veil, is going to be about $100. You could be looking at $1,000 for just a few hives.”

‘They Were Really Mad That Day’

Only 1% of the population is severely allergic to stings, according to Iowa State. Still, stings can be a painful part of the hobby for any beekeeper.

“I’ve taken my fair share of stings,” Wolfe said. “One time, I moved a hive that was queen-less. You can tell a hive is queen-less because the worker bees make a high-pitched, stressed sound. So, they were already stressed out. They got in my suit and in my hair. I ended up on steroids (because of the stings).”

Puetz had only been stung about three times until this August.

“One day, I got stung eight times in my legs,” he said. “They were really mad that day.”

‘I Do It Because It’s Fun’

Puetz harvests honey once per year.

“Some people will harvest in the spring and fall, but being so new to this, we just harvest in the fall,” he said. “When we harvest honey, we pull out the honey frame, and then we take it into an enclosure. You will want to take it into an enclosure because bees want that honey back. Bees don’t appreciate it when it is harvest time because that is their winter food. It would be like somebody went into your refrigerator and took everything out and walked away with it.”

Puetz uses a specialized tool to scrape off wax caps, then spins the honey away from the remaining wax in an extractor.

“From there, it will go through two different filters and from there you can bottle it,” he said. “It takes a lot of manual work, but I do it because it’s fun. It’s a blast.”

After extracting the honey, Puetz wraps the boxes containing the hives and begins feeding the bees to help them survive the winter.

“A lot of people don’t realize that you actually have to feed your bees in the spring and the fall,” he said. “You either have to have inboard feeders or buckets that you can set on top so they can drink a sugar syrup out of. Every year, I probably buy close to 300 pounds of sugar. If there is no food, they will fly away.”