HARD WORK FOR SWEET RESULTS

Beekeeping in Lake Country

WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED by KATE PERKINS

Rose, left, and Richard Zak are Brainerd area commercial beekeepers. Though their profession is challenged by colony collapse, the honey flows like water every fall as they collect it from their hives.

THICK, SWEET GOLDEN HONEY DRIPS FROM COMB-FILLED TRAYS IN A WAREHOUSE AT ROZAK ENTERPRISES, where three people are dutifully extracting honey from hives on a crisp fall day. A few errant bees buzz around the warehouse, calmly clustering against lights or landing on the machinery. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of honey go through this warehouse each autumn as owners Richard and Rose Zak, with the help of employee Bill Krieger, extract honey, beeswax and more for the wholesale market. The Zaks, who live south of Brainerd, are commercial beekeepers who have more than 2,400 beehives.

Honey extraction at the Zak’s will take about a month of long days. And while honey is what bees are known for, honey extraction is only a piece of a complex process that is beekeeping, a skill that has become infinitely more complicated in recent decades by colony collapse. “Colony collapse” refers to the many elements that stack up against beehives and cause their death. From insecticides used on crops, to infectious mites, to a simple lack of forage, bees are being hit on all sides, and their keepers stay on the forefront of science and entomology to maintain their hives.

Despite the challenges, beekeeping as both a hobby and a profession is as interesting as it is complex.

“You’ve got to become a doctor of bees to understand what’s going on,” Richard Zak said. But to him, the challenge is the best part. Many beekeepers remain passionate about the business of keeping their hives alive.

“It’s fascinating. No two seasons are the same,” said Don Jackson, owner of Rendon Apiaries in Pequot Lakes and long-time beekeeper. He’s also the president of the North Central Beekeepers Association, a club that meets monthly to talk bees.

It was around twenty to thirty years ago that beekeeping began to get more complicated. Bee keeping’s drastic changes can be marked, in part, by the number of hives in the country. Jackson said that just after World War II, the number of hives in the country peaked at about 6 million. At that time, sugar had been rationed and honey was a perfect alternative. Beeswax could be used to coat aircrafts and prevent corrosion. Today, though, the number of colonies in the United States tops out at around 2.7 million.

Richard Zak, Brainerd-area beekeeper, examines one of his 2,400 hives.

It’s simply more difficult to keep bees alive today. Some research shows that around 40 percent of hives collapse annually—and then beekeepers work to split their larger, healthier hives and maintain their numbers.

Mann Lake Ltd. is the largest beekeeping supply company in the world, and it’s based in the heart of Lake Country in Hackensack, Minnesota. Owner Jack Thomas said that colony collapse
is not confined to the United States, but is a worldwide issue. Much of what his company provides is nourishment and medicine for beehives, in addition to safety apparel, honey extraction equipment, and much more.

“Bees are livestock. The best thing a farmer does with livestock is keep them alive, and this is the hardest thing a keeper has to do today,” Thomas said.

For one thing, crops today are engineered to allow farmers to more easily control weeds. It used to be that there were far more weeds in the fields, and those weeds provided forage for bees. When there are no weeds amongst crops that are already not a food source for bees, the bees are out of luck. To offset this issue, Mann Lake sells proteins and carbohydrates to supplement colonies.

Some pesticides used on crops are also believed to negatively affect bees, causing them to “fly drunk” or be unable to find their way back to their hives. Jackson said that as many as 80 percent of drones in a hive can be sterile, which is believed to be due to exposure to pesticides.

Several types of disease-carrying mites infest hives and spread illness. Jackson, who was an apiary (bee yard) inspector for the Department of Agriculture for twenty-two years, said he first found mites in this region in 1988, in north Mille Lacs County. At first the bees seemed to handle the mites fine, but soon it was discovered that the mites carried diseases. Richard Zak said that he, like many beekeepers, medicates his bees to help fight the mites, but it’s never a winning fight.

“All honeybees have mites. You can’t get rid of them, it’s maintaining (the problem),” he said. But the medicine itself also has side effects which can affect the bees in other ways.

These many elements put a strain on both the bees and the beekeepers. At Mann Lake, Thomas’ staff is constantly researching new ways to help bees and their keepers, whether it’s medicine or supplements.

And without bees, humans are left with only a fraction of the pollination they need for the world’s food sources.

“Einstein said that if all the honeybees died in the world, we would start starving in five years. The honeybee is the gatekeeper to the world’s food supply. So you can see the problem on the horizon if we continue to lose bees at this accelerated rate. We’re going to be in trouble,” Thomas said.

Richard Zak said that the beekeeper has the “canary in the coal mine,” an indicator for the world’s food supply. Currently, Richard Zak said, there is a shortage of bees to pollinate almond crops. Nearly all of his hives will go to California to overwinter. Originally he found he had better survival rate of his hives by wintering them in California, but pollination services have also proved lucrative.

While hobby beekeepers are mainly interested in keeping bees for honey, many people may not realize that for commercial beekeepers, honey is not the only source of income—and perhaps not even the best one. For many, pollination services to farmers are equally or more lucrative than honey sales.

Colony collapse has also affected honey yields. At one time, Richard Zak said, beekeepers could get up to two hundred pounds of honey per colony. But in recent decades, he said that beekeepers have been lucky to get fifty pounds per colony.

“In this day and age, and in this area, if you get fifty pounds average, from year to year you’ll have a seventy-pound year and a twenty-pound year,” Richard Zak said. While 2017 was one of the best years he’s had in a long time, he said it was an anomaly—not an indication that things are getting better for bees.

“I don’t hope for it to ever get any better,” Richard Zak said. He said that bringing bees back to their days of two hundred-pound yields would require global-scale work. “You’d have to save the planet,” he said.

Nonetheless, Richard Zak said his favorite part of beekeeping is the challenge, “to overcome odds that you just don’t seem to be able to overcome. Because it’s quite the thing to just, you know, make it work. You can’t know enough it seems like.”

To Jackson and Zak, each colony is an individual, with each bee acting as a metaphorical cell in the body of the hive.

“They’re very, very complex, and they have a lot of intelligence as well,” Jackson said. “In a colony with 50,000 insects, you have just about half the brain cells as you have in a human being.”

This frame, set on the edge of its super, shows cells loaded with honey and capped with wax. The frame is ready for honey extraction.

Jackson said the bee is the most widely studied insect in the world. As both knowledge of the bees and their complications grow, Lake Country beekeepers continue to take on the challenge, pollinating our food and providing honey for our kitchens.