- Associated Press - Friday, August 28, 2015

EMPORIA, Kan. (AP) - A local group has been working for more than a decade to keep alive a hobby that is increasingly important for our very existence.

The Flint Hills Beekeepers is a club that meets monthly. Its members are called apiarists - the official name for those that tend to beehives - and they take it seriously, The Emporia Gazette (http://bit.ly/1V0Ewi8 ) reported.

Recent years have seen severe declines in bee populations around the world. What makes this dangerous is that, without bees, there are few insects and animals left to pollinate crops.

Many reasons for the disappearance of bees have been postulated, ranging from chemicals to colony collapse disorder, an unexplained scenario where all worker bees leave the queen and the hive.

Laura Dodge, who has been a member for almost 10 years, said she leans toward pesticides being the reason.

“They (pesticides) all do serve a good purpose,” Dodge said. “But when you have all of these chemicals that are also getting rid of the good insects, you have problems.

“I think if we get rid of these chemicals, we can find other ways. The old ways do have value and they do work.”

Dodge, who is the group’s resident expert on plants and what types of flowers are most conducive to bees, said that the time-tested method of using Castile soap mixed with water to spray in the garden keeps away the bugs that eat vegetables, but still allows the bees to do their thing.

“It seems like most of what you hear (from research) is that it’s from pesticides,” Dodge said. “People go out and buy bugs like praying mantises and ladybugs to put in their gardens. It (pesticides) shouldn’t be like that, it should just be natural.”

She said that anyone wanting to help out the bees without having their own hives can plant a wide variety of herbs and flowers in their gardens.

Some favorites for bees include sunflowers, marigolds, bluebells, clematis, crocus, echinacea and poppies. Herbs like lavender, rosemary and thyme also provide plenty of pollen.

The chemicals, she said, have a suspected link to diseases in humans such as lymphoma and leukemia.

Monsanto, one of the largest producers of pesticides and herbicides in the world, is currently in a legal battle with the European Union over bans on its products.

There are currently outright bans in France, Maui, Hungary, Peru, Russia and China on the company’s genetically modified crops.

Countries that have banned Roundup include Sri Lanka, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, Netherlands, Germany, Argentina and Bermuda.

The members realize that these chemicals serve a purpose, but some think that their use has gone a bit too far when it comes to maintaining a healthy bee population.

“We’ve got herbicides now that just kill everything,” member Keith King said. “Twenty years ago, the herbicides missed half of the stuff. Now there’s not even weeds to bloom. I think it’s just a combination of several factors.”

Joan Young, another member of the group, said that lack of diversity in commercial crops is also another part of the problem.

She said that monocultures are bad in the sense that the bees only have one plant’s pollen to produce honey from.

“We actually live in the best area of the country,” Young said. “There are areas where there’s just one crop for thousands of acres. Thank God for the Flint Hills, because we have a diversity, and it’s weeds. Kansas is lucky because we’re so far away from New York and California.

“It’s perpetuating the species. The majority of us believe that the situation is really bad. We have to keep this going.”

A wide range of plants in a rural habitat makes for happy bees, member Gail Fuller said.

“In the urban setting, this would all be mowed off,” Fuller said. “There would be a contract sprayer. But here you can see all of the different things blooming.”

An individual hive can have anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 bees. The queen lays eggs in the winter, and if fertilized they hatch into female worker bees in the spring. If not fertilized, they become male drones.

They survive the winter by huddling in clumps around the queen. All of the movement keeps her temperature right at 90 degrees, despite the frigid air outside.

Bees typically don’t stray more than five miles from their queen, hitting up orchards, fields and gardens within that radius.

This is also where another problem arises. Commercial operations ship bees all of the country - depending on the season - to pollinate large orchards or other crops.

“We need the bees everywhere,” Fuller said. “But what we need is the bees to populate an area and stay there - not trucking them all over the country.”

He said that some companies have upwards of 15,000 hives (150,000-plus bees). The companies take all of the honey, leaving none for food, which is supplemented with sugar water.

The Kings, who hosted the July meeting, have three hives. One is wild, the other two were purchased.

Jane King does the daily maintenance that’s required to care for the bees, including ensuring they have enough food, the queen is OK and the hive is stable.

She said that anyone interested in becoming an apiarist should do plenty of research before going out and buying a queen from a salesperson.

“Get some books and read,” Jane King said. “There will be some variances in there, but read as much as you can. There are some great websites, too.”

Young added that the local group is always a good start and can help point people in the right direction.

“You want to join the club before you get bees,” Young said. “These people here will help you; join before you buy anything. Don’t just call someone and ask what you need - they’ll sell you anything.”

The Flint Hills Beekeepers can be contacted through their Facebook page or by emailing fhbeekeepers@gmail.com. They meet at 2 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month at the water treatment plant in Emporia.

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Information from: The Emporia (Kan.) Gazette, http://www.emporiagazette.com/

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