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Youth, family finds beekeeping addictive

By Staff | May 15, 2009

From left are Josh, Joe and David Mechaelsen as they pose with super trays with active bees at work. The family lives in rural Kamrar.

KAMRAR – Two years ago, when Josh Mechaelsen was 16 years old, he was at the Iowa State Fair with his family and picked up some information at the Iowa Honey Producers Association booth.

The pamphlet announced grants the IHPA was looking to award to people interested in starting bee colonies.

“I always thought that it looked interesting,” Mechaelsen said. “But I had no idea that it would be addictive.”

Using his grant and with help from mentor Pat Ennis, of Goddell, who serves as IHPA’s vice president, Mechaelsen received his first hive and bees to populate it.

The home-schooled, 18-year-old son of David and Tamara Mechaelsen, attended a series of workshops on maintaining a healthy bee colony in Mason City. His father and younger brother Joe attended with him, and, as a result got interested in the process and the three of them became amateur apiarists.

Honey bees works diligently on creating the honeycombs and making honey for the hive's survival. The average bee lives just 42 days during the summer, said third-year apiarist Josh Mechaelsen, "because they literally work themselves to death. They wear out their wings."

“We all got hooked in the project,” Josh Mechaelsen said.

In 2006, Josh received his first hive ,while his father David and brother Joe were given a hive that was donated by Ennis.

However, Josh Mechaelsen said, “we got the bees in late-April, which is a little late to start a colony.” The bees had managed to produce just enough honey for them to survive the winter, so there was none to harvest for the family.

In 2007, Josh moved his hive three miles down the road to the farm owned by his grandfather Earl Mechaelsen. There the bees were near an alfalfa field and their numbers grew rapidly.

The bees not only produced enough honey for the coming winter, but the Mechaelsens harvested 10 gallons of honey. “I didn’t think that was too bad for a second-year hive,” Josh said, “especially because we got a late start.”

Josh Mechaelsen, 18, of rural Kamrar, demonstrates how he places a tray of honeycombs into a device that cuts the tops of the honeycombs and spins the honey out.

Going into the winter of 2008, Josh had split his hive into two colonies, while David and Joe had three colonies. But by spring, David and Joe had a hive die out because it lost its queen. Josh has also lost a hive, he said, because he failed to provide timely treatments for mites. “The mites weakened them and they weren’t fed soon enough.

“I’ve learned from that,” he said. “But the other hive is doing real well.”

The bees on the Mechaelsen farm, located in northcentral Hamilton County, are what Mechaelsen calls “hobby bees.”

He said a hive grows quickly in the warmer months. “A queen can lay 1,500 eggs in a day,” Mechaelsen said. The eggs take three weeks to hatch. “So starting in 21 days, you really start getting a lot of bees.”

When asked about facts in which most people don’t know about bees, Mechaelsen said, that in the summer, the average worker bee lives for about 42 days. “They just work themselves to death. They work so hard for the hive that they literally wear their wings out.” During colder months, he added, bees live longer, so the queen doesn’t lay as many eggs.

Keeping bees requires learning a few skills, Mechaelsen, said. These include:

  • When using smoke to pacify bees before getting into a hive, one has to know how to generate cool smoke. If it’s too hot, it’ll hurt or kill the bees. The smoke causes the bees to go down into the hive and gorge on honey, which is what makes them docile.
  • One must remain calm when working among the bees. “Bees don’t like sudden movement or loud noise,” Mechaelsen said. “If they get startled, they get aggressive.”
  • When one has opened a hive, he must know what to look for in monitoring the overall hive health. This would include watching for signs of varroa mites, which can deform and weaken bees. This particular mite is laid on larvae and climbs on the honey bee pupa when it emerges. As the bee grows, it can be deformed by the mite, depending on where it is attached.

Josh Mechaelsen said that there are chemical treatments that can help bees be free of the mites, but these are expensive. Instead, he uses a more natural product – powdered sugar. Josh coats the bees in his hives every week for the month. The idea is that as the bees clean the sugar off each other, the mites are removed. These fall to the open bottom of the hive and onto the ground and will be no problem for bees afterward. After the first month, the sugar treatment will be repeated every other week, he said.

When asked if he has a production goal for the third year, he grinned.

“No there is no production goal. (The apiarist) has control of nothing that affects honey production, especially weather, available nectar and where the honey is stored.

“The only thing you can do is to take care of the bees,” he said.

Josh said his advice to anyone considering starting a colony is to get the training and get started. “It’s definitely worth it and it also improves your gardens and orchards.

“It’s not hard, but it keeps you busy.”

Besides almost every family member getting hooked on the project, all except his mother, that is, I didn’t know that it would take up an entire room in our shop. “I also didn’t know there were as many beekeepers in Iowa” – 15,000 – “but I learned that Iowa needs a lot more of them.”

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext, 453, or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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