Beekeeping is enjoying a nice comeback in many U.S. states, including Illinois. Renewed interest in the hobby is linked to concerns over declining bee populations. Enthusiasts also say curiosity tends to reel people in.
No matter the case, those with experience say that, while beekeeping is rewarding, it’s not an activity you can just buzz into.
The midday sun is beating down on a rural estate near Genoa. It’s a humid day with temperatures in the 80s. Even though putting on extra layers of clothing doesn’t sound appealing, Carolyn Hudon doesn’t seem to mind, and hands me a jacket that features the famous-looking veil designed to protect the human head from a swarm of bees.
Now that we’re ready, Hudon leads me to the 35 hives she and her partner Frank Reiss have in a field outside their home. She lifts the top off one of them to see how things are coming along. Hudon says this is one of the weaker hives, but she likes what she sees:
“There’s a lot of eggs there," Hudon said. "The queen is doing her job. Eventually, they will reach their full potential."
Hudon and Reiss are among the more then 2,500 beekeepers registered in Illinois. In a newly released report, state officials say the number has increased every year since 2002. They credit some of that to heightened awareness of colony collapse disorder, which has wiped out scores of bee colonies in the U.S.
Agriculture officials say that, when you exclude the impact from the recent winter, Illinois’ bee population hasn’t suffered many of the heavy losses seen in other states. But they say it’s still good to have all of this renewed interest. Pollination from these insects is important for fruit and vegetable crops -- especially Illinois’ pumpkin supply, which is the largest in the country.
And as these new beekeepers hit the scene, people like Hudon welcome them with open arms. But they suggest going into observation mode first.
“When you see it, it sounds like a good idea,” Hudon said, "until you get all the way into it."
Hudon says that, although the work is seasonal, there is some heavy lifting in hot weather. You have to be patient -- and willing to spend a few extra bucks. That’s because, initially, beekeeping isn’t exactly cheap. There’s the cost of all the equipment, not to mention the bees you have to purchase. When you add it all up, some experts say the average initial investment can run between $500 and $1,000.
Oh, and there’s the ability to withstand the occasional sting and other frustrations.
Some research is required, including how to care for your bees during the winter, and whether your community has restrictions on keeping hives.
At a recent meeting of the Fox Valley Beekeepers Association, newcomer Shantacy Johnston of Batavia reflected on some of her growing pains.
“I did my first year without taking any classes, just kind of researching things on my own. It didn’t work out, I lost my first hive,” Johnston said.
Undeterred by the false start, Johnston took a beginner’s class. Did it pay off?
“So far, it’s been a good year. We’ll see if I get any honey,” Johnston said.
So why do experienced beekeepers preach a heavy dose of education before getting started? Longtime instructor Chuck Lorence says they want people to remain passionate about what they’re doing and not just give up after a few early obstacles.
“The challenge is, how long will this last? Because some people get a few stings and they’re out of the business,” Lorence said.
Lorence says they want to keep enough people interested before the novelty wears off again. And they don’t want valuable resources taken away from people who are willing to stick it out.
At the same time, these pros don’t want to scare anyone off because they say there are so many good things that come from taking up beekeeping as a hobby.
They say you will later recoup a lot of the money spent up front by selling the honey you start to collect over time. There’s the positive impact on agriculture. And there’s the ultimate reward of feeding the curious mind by learning so much about what these insects are able to do.