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The sweet joy — and burning pain — of beekeeping in Aberdeen

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David Eckert and Aaron Kiesz yelp in surprise as they are stung by bees, on their hands or arms.

No matter how many times he’s been stung, Eckert said, it still hurts after he scrapes away one final stinger still clinging to the inside of his elbow. By the end of the evening, both Eckert and Kiesz have a few new reminders of their day’s work.

The two men spent about an hour Sunday checking their bee hives on Kiesz’s property north of Aberdeen. They raise the bees as a hobby, with the side benefits of adding more little pollinators to the area, and having a nice batch of sweet clover honey after a really good year.

This isn’t a good honey year, however. They’re rebuilding their colonies after losing all their bees two winters ago, and went without bees in 2017.

Both work for the city parks department: Kiesz is the city forester; Eckert, director for the Aberdeen Recreation and Cultural Center.

The hobby brings back memories for Eckert of his high school job working for the commercial beekeeping company Schmidt Honey Farm (now Dakota Apiary) in Winner.

“It was one of my favorite jobs,” he said — and also one of the hardest.

When he found out Kiesz kept bee hives, Eckert started coming over to lend a hand. Now he has invested in the endeavor. They’ve been working together about six years.

They started the summer with six hives. Now they have five, three of which are on another property. A strong hive has thousands of bees. They’ll start the season with about 20,000 bees, Eckert said, and swell to 40,000 to 60,000 insects.

Eckert was amazed at how quickly everything he learned working at a commercial beekeeping company came back to him.

Kiesz started beekeeping about eight years ago after he built his rural home and grabbed the dormant hive from his family home. His dad had bees when Kiesz was younger, and used the venom from stings as a type of therapy for his arthritis.

With a little guidance from local beekeeper Walter Schott, Kiesz said he was ready to get started.

Checking the hives

Kiesz and Eckert check their hives dressed in a beekeeper’s helmet and veil — essential covers to protect the head from unwanted bee stings. Metal cuffs around the ankles keep the crawling bees at bay. A jacket and beekeeping gloves are optional, but come out later as the bees get a little more aggressive.

The two men open up the first hive examining the wooden frames. There’s a hint of burning wood chips in the air from the smoker that’s used to mellow the bees.

The buzz from the bees becomes a steady hum as curiosity brings them closer.

The smoke does the trick. Eckert is able to point out the difference between brood cells with developing larvae, new queen cells and honey that will be used as food for the winter. He also points out a couple of bees that have returned with pollen.

Meanwhile, the bees continue to work away focused on the task at hand.

The goal is to see how many bees are left in one of their smaller hives. The colony lost its queen, which has weakened the hive. When that happens, Eckert said, the colony creates larger queen cells and feeds the larvae a special diet so they grow into a new queen. Their plan is to combine what’s left of this hive with one of the other two so they have a better chance of surviving the winter.

Combining the hives involves removing the developing queen cells so the new combined hive maintains the one queen.

As they combine the hives, Kiesz and Eckert put the new bees in a second box separated by a layer of newspaper. By the time that barrier is broken, they said, the bees will be used to one another and the hive will become a stronger unit.

When they’re finished, they weigh down the lid with a rock and look back at the two hives left out of the five they started with this spring. Time will tell how many will survive the winter.

Fighting the pests

“Beekeeping is so much different than 30 to 40 years ago,” Eckert said. “Then, you could watch them a bit, wrap them in tar paper for the winter and they’ll survive. Now, if 60 percent of your bees survive, that’s good.”

Kiesz said that’s because there’s chemicals and pests today that can threaten colonies. Top on the list, he said, is varroa mites. These little mites are parasites about the size of a pin head.

“If you don’t keep them under control, the bees won’t survive,” Kiesz said.

There are a couple of ways to check for mites, one of which involves sprinkling a jar of bees with powdered sugar, shaking the jar with the bees then shaking out the powdered sugar through a screen at the top of the jar and counting the mites.

They haven’t tried that method, yet. But, with their dwindling numbers, they treated as a precaution with a chemical strip that hangs between the frames.

In addition to mites, Kiesz said herbicides and neonicotinoid pesticides, which are harming bees, there’s colony collapse disorder where colonies abandon their hive in the middle of the winter.

Bees are also susceptible to more diseases because commercial beekeepers truck hives across the country to pollinate in different regions.

“All that moving around is stressful on the bees,” Eckert said. “They have to be fed along the way and all that traveling makes it easy to spread diseases.”

Kiesz said he’s spoken about beekeeping on a couple occasions and said he uses it as an educational opportunity.

“It’s good to educate people that they don’t have to be afraid of bees,” he said.

Aberdeen city ordinances do address insects. Since they’re constantly in and out of a hive and can’t be contained, City Attorney Ron Wager said, it’s not something that’s allowed within the city limits.

While beekeeping is something anyone can start as a hobby, Eckert and Kiesz advise people to do their research first because it’s not a passive hobby and it can get expensive, but there’s always something new to learn.

Nursing a swollen elbow this week, Eckert recalled early advice from his high school days: Avoid dark colors and wear khaki-colored pants and shirts. That tip hit home when Eckert thought about the black elbow band he was wearing on Sunday where the bees stung time and again as he looked over the hives. The bees don’t like the dark colors.

If he has to wear one again, he said, he’ll find one in a lighter color.

Follow @ElisaSand_AAN on Twitter.

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