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Local honey producers trying to keep business going

July 17, 2013

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

In case you haven’t noticed, the last several years have been rough on honeybees and those who raise them. The Chicago Tribune ran an extensive article in its Tuesday, June 11, issue documenting the struggles of the honey industry over the last decade and the problems faced by beekeepers as they confront a number of factors beyond their control. Foremost among these are unfavorable weather, pesticides and parasites.

Phil Raines, owner of Raines Honey Farm in Davis, Ill., sells his product at the Rockford City Market. Besides the pure honey, Raines offers beeswax, candles, lip balm, lotion and soap. He takes pride in the fact that his product is pure, strained, not filtered and chemical-free. He recently spoke with The Rock River Times in an interview by phone.

TRRT: How long have you been in the beekeeping business?

Phil Raines: I’ve been keeping bees for about 15 years now. I’ve been keeping bees full time, trying to make a living for the last five years. Before that, it was a hobby and just kept growing.

TRRT: Is there any known cause for colony collapse disorder?

PR: It’s the varrola mites and the insecticides. There’s so many chemicals in our environment now. Look at the issues they’re having with frogs and other amphibians. It’s getting harder and harder [to produce honey]. Think of the forest preserves. They are my saving grace, because I have quite a few organic vegetable farms as well.

You’ve got to keep the bees as far away from modern agriculture as possible, or at least have a buffer because the chemicals are so bad. Plus, there’s just not the pastures and the hay grounds that there used to be. Unless you’ve got organic hay grounds … even the modern hay grounds are being sprayed. You have some standard dairy farms. After they cut the first crop, they spray the field with synthetic parathion — it came from the chrysanthemum flower. So what ends up happening is, they spray for aphids, and after they take the second crop of hay, they spray for the alfalfa weevil. So, you’ve got two things.

Most people here growing alfalfa don’t let it bloom. Alfalfa actually is a great honey crop. If you can find someone who doesn’t cut it, it makes a lot of honey. Even in the fence rows, there is a lot of alfalfa growing wild … stuff like that, what bees are feeding on. There is just not enough of it. It’s all corn and soybeans. Finding locations for bees is becoming more and more difficult between the mites and viruses and chemicals. (He gave an example of how it works.) The mites — it’s the same as with mosquitoes and West Nile virus. We could handle the tick or mosquito bite — it’s viruses. The bees can stand a certain amount of mite pressure, but it’s the viruses that do the damage. They suck the blood of the bees, and then it’s an open wound, and viruses get into the bees and make them sick.

More and more people are getting out of beekeeping because there’s just too much work anymore. You really have to love what you do because if you look at anyone else in agriculture, in an industry where you’re losing 40 to 60 percent of your livestock every winter — some years are better than others, some are worse. If you were a cattle producer or a goat or dairy farmer or in an apple orchard, if you lose 50 percent of it each year, you’d be out of business.

If you go to the produce section of any grocery store and take away two-thirds of everything you see there, that’s what you would have without honeybees. No apples, oranges, watermelons or produce. There is none without honeybees. To produce alfalfa seeds, some people grow alfalfa just for the seeds. They have to have honeybees on the land to pollinate the plants to produce seeds. Without honeybees to pollinate the seeds, dairy farmers can’t plant more alfalfa to feed their cows. It is a huge dilemma that the entire world is facing because you can’t live on just corn and beans. That’s where the money is right now.

Or look at the cranberries up in Wisconsin. They need tens of thousands of hives to pollinate the cranberry crop. Beekeepers come from Florida, Texas, all over. I’m getting calls from people in Wisconsin saying, “The beekeeper that I used to deal with is getting out of the business. Can you come up and pollinate my crops?”

TRRT: Are there any steps you can take to protect hives over the winter?

PR: Yes, we take ours down to Mississippi. We started taking them down three years ago. There is a learning curve to do it because you’ve got to get out of the North. You’ve got to get them out before the weather gets too bad, and you don’t want to take them down South if it’s too warm. It’s hard on them. There’s a fine line between when you have to move bees South and when you move them North. We move down in November and bring them back the first week of May. That helped keep bees alive … but for me to take bees down there, it costs almost $15,000 just to move bees down to Mississippi and bring them back.

TRRT: Do you see any local impact from crops grown from GMO seeds?

PR: I’m not seeing a problem with the seed itself or the pollen. What I’m seeing is the insecticides these seeds are treated with are toxic to the bees. They coat the seeds with neonicotinoids and the seed treatment. When they [bees] are out and the treatment gets in the air, if it gets on the bees when they’re flying back, they get that insecticide on them, and it kills them. It’s the same as if somebody’s got a soybean field, and the soybean grower uses insecticide, it kills them. They spray insecticide on the plant. Roundup is not an issue for bees. The problem is when they have insect pests feeding on the corn and soybeans, and then they spray. That’s what kills the bees. There are many pressures, and there are a lot of bad beekeepers as well. But the majority of it is, we don’t have the environment that we used to have.

It’s been a cold spring, and we need some warmth for the yellow and white sweet clover. It’s called yellow blossom. They get about 3 or 4 feet tall. The blossoms [are] yellow sweet clover and white Dutch clover like in your lawn. That is the predominant honey producer in Illinois. There is also some basswood and alfalfa.

From the July 17-23, 2013, issue

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