Smoke filled the air as beekeeper and Farm Bureau member Don Steinke circled his hives with a smoker full of burning grass. “They think it’s a fire,” he whispered. “So they stop worrying about us and start worrying about rescuing all the honey and escaping.”
Within seconds, swarms of bees take flight, buzzing and whirring around, as Steinke grins from under his beekeeper’s hat. He said there’s a difference between the sound of “good buzzing” and “bad buzzing,” but when encircled by his 400,000 bees, it’s hard to tell the difference. Unfazed by the commotion, he pulls full frames of honey out of each hive and loads them into the back of his pickup truck. “Don’t worry,” the Wapakoneta native said. “My bees are nice bees.”
Steinke means his bees are tame bees; something in which he takes special pride. He gets stung from time to time but said the best way to learn about beekeeping is to literally listen to the bees. “When they start stinging too bad, then you think, well, that ain’t the way to do it,” he said, explaining that after working with bees for 43 years, he has a lot of experience to pull from. But when it comes to honey, the 70-year-old apiarist knows his stuff, and like every good farmer, has learned the secrets to a successful crop.
One such secret is attention to detail. He knows the tenants of each hive and not many bees move in or out without him noticing. As soon as he identifies a hive that has lost its queen, he makes sure to re-queen it with quality honeybees shipped in from California. “You don’t want the swarm to go out and mate with wild bees or find a wild queen. That’s when things get out of control,” he said. “That’s why my bees are nice bees.”
Steinke’s kinship with bees started when he was 10 years old. “My father brought home a book from the agricultural society explaining the importance of bees, and I just found it interesting,” he said, noting that 80 percent of food offered in supermarkets is there because, at some point, bees have pollinated the crop. He also said the production of most beef and dairy products is dependent on insect-pollinated legumes, and the estimated direct value of honeybee pollination to U.S. agriculture is $9.7 billion. “In other words,” he said, “if we don’t have bees, we don’t eat.”
At age 23, Steinke decided to turn his fascination into a hobby, buying his first hive at an auction for $6. His hobby has now grown into a 475-hive family business known as Steinke’s Bee World. “I can remember when my daughter would sit and extract the honey from the frames by hand, cranking this old honey extractor for hours,” he said. Now, with his children grown, he’s invested in a honey-extracting machine to make the process a bit easier. He and his wife, Catherine, care for the hives and harvest the honey together each year, while selling it at the Wapakoneta Farmers’ Market and out of the little store next to their home.
Like any business, Steinke’s Bee World has good and bad years. “I usually expect to lose 10 to 20 percent of my hives,” Steinke said. But he lost 80 percent of his bees in 2007 and he is not alone. Last year was the worst on record for beekeepers; they have dealt with the puzzle of Colony Collapse Disorder (see sidebar). To harvest any honey last year, Steinke was forced to split his hives by adding more queen bees. In search of a solution, he sent samples to a lab in Maryland, but nothing abnormal was found. Steinke blamed his losses on a long and late cold snap in February.
The Steinkes prefer to eat their honey as often as possible. They eat honey with almost every meal and consume as much as a gallon a month. These honey connoisseurs credit their good health to their honey habit. Steinke said as long as the steady diet of honey keeps him healthy, he’ll continue making it.
Any Saturday from June through October, visitors can find a smiling Steinke down at the Wapakoneta Farmers’ Market peddling his honey, educating each customer about its health benefits and the importance of bees. He sums it up with a simple fact he has known since age 10: “You know, we all need bees.”
Megan Nadolski is a freelance writer and photographer.
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