Longtime beekeeper sees reason to smile about insects' future

Elgin apiary owner says added plants, improved genetics among reasons for optimism despite decline in bee numbers

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ELKADER — Honey bees are “the second love” of Bob Fassbinder’s life, second only to his wife Kathy, with whom he has operated Fassbinder Apiaries near Elgin for the past 41 years.

Fassbinder said he could talk all day about the benefits of bees, but he had only 20 minutes to make his points Saturday as a featured speaker at the Music & Monarchs festival sponsored by the Clayton County Conservation Awareness Network.

Though honey bee populations have declined dramatically in the past 20 years, Fassbinder said he remains hopeful they will not become extinct.

He bases his optimism on a renewed interest in beekeeping, an expansion of pollinator plants in rural landscapes and strains of honey bees that are genetically resistant to one of the bees’ chief nemeses — varroa mites and the viruses they transmit.

Those mites, along with increased pesticide use and reductions in the forage bees need to survive, get most of the blame for declining honey bee populations.

Since 2006, when colony collapse disorder came to widespread public attention, the number of beekeepers in Iowa has tripled from 1,500 to 4,500 — part of a worldwide movement to help the bees, Fassbinder said.

The inclusion of pollinator seed mixes in the federal Conservation Reserve Program is making more pollen and nectar available to bees, he said.

Fassbinder said he thinks the key to honey bee survival is genetics.

“We’re on a mission to put survivor genetics up and down the Turkey and Volga rivers,” he said.

Fassbinder describes the mite-resistant Carniolin bees he imports as gentle and hard working.

“You can brush your hand along their backs and they won’t sting you. They are a joy to work with,” he said.

The Fassbinders tend 200 hives, each with about 30,000 bees, in the river valleys between Eldorado and Garber. The remote, natural settings provide excellent bee forage, as well as separation from most pesticides, but they also harbor destructive predators such as bears and raccoons.

In 2014, bears destroyed dozens of Fassbinder’s hives and inflicted thousands of dollars in damage. This year, he said, raccoons are raiding his hives, eating bees, honey and pollen.

In tracking the seasonal availability of pollen, the bees’ main food, Fassbinder said it seems to be emerging earlier every year. Soft maple, the first major source in the spring, used to arrive in mid-April, he said.

“It was Feb. 25 this year, a new record. Things are changing. You have to adjust to them,” he said.

Another popular festival presentation featured the release of 30 monarch butterflies by representatives of the Iowa State Monarch Consortium, which is researching ways to increase the density and distribution of milkweed, the host plant on which monarchs depend for survival.

“We need 30 million milkweed stems in Iowa,” said Teresa Blader, an entymology graduate student at Iowa State University.

Toward that end, free milkweed seeds and plants were distributed at the festival, an annual event intended to promote conservation awareness and environmental stewardship.

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