Life

The ins and outs of keeping beehives

A queen bee (center) is seen in a hive in Joe Klingelhutz's apiary in rural Solon, Iowa on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Thi
A queen bee (center) is seen in a hive in Joe Klingelhutz’s apiary in rural Solon, Iowa on Thursday, April 30, 2020. This is Joe’s first year with his own hives after spending several learning about how to care for them. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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A farmer at heart, Joe Klingelhutz loves that we can grow our own food in Iowa — including sugar in the form of honey. He tends 10 beehives on an acreage in Solon.

“Beekeeping is tending livestock. It’s farming,” Klingelhutz said. “As a farmer wanting to produce, process and market goods, you have to be a good caretaker.”

Klingelhutz, 25, didn’t set out to be a beekeeper. While at Iowa State University, majoring in environmental sciences and minoring in forestry, he took the school’s first two-credit beekeeping course on a whim.

“I really got interested during that course,” he said.

After college, he spent six months in New Zealand working for a commercial beekeeper who tended more than 600 hives. He learned everything from mite treatment to honey harvesting.

When he returned to Iowa in 2018, Klingelhutz, who rents a home in Iowa City, installed five hives on his mother’s Solon acreage.

Beekeeping can be a great activity for families living in town or in the country, providing kids a chance to watch bees and learn about them, he said, “as long as no family members are severely allergic to bees.”

“You’ll get stung. You have to be OK with getting stung. I’ve been stung hundreds of times,” Klingelhutz said. “It hurts every time.”

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Part of his job as farm specialist with the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, based in West Branch, is to consult with rural landowners about conservation and farming, including beekeeping.

He said there are two main reasons people become beekeepers: to assist with pollination and to harvest honey.

Pollination

Bees pollinate flowers and vegetation that need pollen to reproduce. Many pollinators are native to Iowa, but their population is declining because much of their habitat has been destroyed, Klingelhutz said.

Honey bees, he said, are not native to Iowa and have only been in the state for about 400 years.

“Honey bees are good pollinators, but there are native bumblebees that are way better pollinators,” he said.

If becoming a beekeeper isn’t for you, Klingelhutz said there are other ways to support pollinators:

• Plant pollinator-friendly flowers and trees.

• Reduce or eliminate the amount of chemicals sprayed on your property.

• Let your lawn overgrow with dandelions and clover.

Honey

Honey produced by bees is condensed nectar from millions and millions of flowers, Klingelhutz said.

Honey is one of the greatest foods in the world because it’s not just simple sugar. Honey also has nutrients and vitamins and is medicinal and antiseptic, he said.

If you know what you’re doing and have bees with good genetics, a hive can produce a lot of honey. In a good year, a commercial beekeeper can collect up to 150 pounds or more of honey per hive. The state average is around 60 pounds of honey per hive.

In its first year, a hive may not yield much honey because the bees need the honey to get through the winter. A beekeeper also may need to supply the bees with sugar syrup.

Honey bee behavior

Any type of animal knows naturally what it needs, Klingelhutz said. One key to being a good beekeeper is understanding how and why bees do what they do. Beekeeping is intricate in that sense, Klingelhutz said.

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“Their personality and behavior are incredible,” he said. “Each hive has thousands and thousands of workers, but they work together.”

Each hive has a personality, too.

“You can have hives that are meaner,” Klingelhutz said. “I have one hive that no matter how careful I am, they want to kill me. If I wasn’t wearing my bee suit, I would have literally hundreds of stings. But they are strong and can fight off disease.”

Even though he took a beekeeping course and worked for a commercial beekeeper, Klingelhutz admits to still making mistakes. He knows beekeepers with 40 years of experience who would say the same.

“There’s science behind it,” he said. “Every year the bees throw something at you that you don’t expect. But there’s a lot of things I’ve learned. There’s something new to learn every year, so it doesn’t get boring.”

Getting started in beekeeping

What you need:

• Land: With beekeeping, you don’t need much land; less than a quarter-acre will do. Bees don’t see boundaries and will forage for miles. However, city ordinances often limit how many hives a homeowner can install based on the size of their lot.

• Hives: There are many outfitters, farm supply and hardware stores that sell hive kits. Prices range from about $60 for a kit you put together yourself into the hundreds of dollars for fancy hives that look like houses.

• Bees: Bee breeders and some honey producers breed bees to sell in packages. Just dump the package into a hive, and that’s it. A packet of honey bees costs between $130 and $200. Beekeeper Joe Klingelhutz cautions some bees are bred to a Southern climate and won’t survive Iowa’s winters. Know what you’re buying.

Equipment:

Bee suit: Some beekeepers don’t wear protective gear, but Klingelhutz said a bee suit is essential for most beekeepers. A bee suit is usually white and includes a hat or hood with a veil.

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Adult coveralls without a hat, hood and veil start at $80; higher-quality suits with a hood and veil will cost up to $200. A children’s suit with a veil costs about $60. Gloves, usually leather, should be long enough to pull up over a bee suit’s sleeves.

Smoker: Smoke calms bees before a beekeeper goes into a hive. Smokers cost less than $20.

Hive tool: This metal tool helps beekeepers pry open hives, scrape off honeycomb and perform other beekeeping chores. The tools start at $5.

Education:

Classes/online: Beekeeping courses are inexpensive and taught around the state. Klingelhutz said a new beekeeper could learn a lot from books and YouTube videos, too.

Join a club: Perhaps the best source of information about beekeeping is to join a local beekeeping club, Klingelhutz said. The Iowa Honey Producers Association (iowahoneyproducers.org) lists clubs, beekeeping classes and beekeeping laws in Iowa cities. Regional beekeeping clubs include Iowa City-based East Central Iowa Beekeepers at (319) 351-6205 and Cedar Rapids-based Heartland Bee Club at (319) 929-1588.

Time:

After a swarm is installed in a hive, a bee colony can survive mostly on its own, though regular checks and maintenance are required.

With one hive, plan on spending at least three hours per month from April through October. Other times of the year, there’s nothing a beekeeper needs to do to maintain the hive.

When Klingelhutz started beekeeping, he was nervous and said tending hives took a while. Now, it takes him about an hour to check 10 hives and tend to their basic needs.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.