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Making life sweet

Ron Puettmann inspects a honey comb frame from one of the hives on the Colony farm in North Liberty. (photo by Janet Nolte)

SOLON– “As market goes, that’s about a premium,” Ron Puettman said as he inspected a frame of comb honey pulled fresh from a hive that currently resides on the North Liberty pumpkin farm of Dean and Katie Colony. “When the bees put honey into a comb and cap it off, it’s at its purest and most perfect form,” Puettmann noted.
A third-generation beekeeper, Puettmann is the manager of Lake Macbride State Park by day and maintains eight hives of honey bees as a sideline and hobby. Three of Puettmann’s hives spent five or six growing seasons on the Colony farm. The other five are placed strategically near basswood trees just outside the park, where a good bloom can usher in a honey flow that fills up a whole super within a day or two. Layperson’s translation: he ends up with roughly 30-40 pounds of raw honey packed into combs attached to eight-to-10 frames inside a box measuring 19 inches long by almost 15 inches wide.
The arrangement between beekeeper and pumpkin farmer is mutually beneficial– Puettmann provides strong bees and Colony reaps the benefits of pollination for his crop. Puettmann’s reward comes at harvest in the distinctive flavor of honey produced from bees feeding on nectar from pumpkin blossoms.
For commercial beekeepers, this kind of exchange takes place on a much larger scale when they rent their colonies to large farming operations to ensure optimal crop yields on vegetables, fruits and nuts. In the U.S. alone, the pollination services of bees are valued at $16 billion annually. According the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the annual economic value of honey bees as crop pollinators in the state is estimated at $92 million.
And, there’s the honey. As of 2016, Iowa had about 4,500 beekeepers managing more than 45,000 honey bee colonies. The four million pounds of honey produced by Iowa bees has an estimated annual worth of $8 million.
Though relatively small, Puettmann’s beekeeping operation has a positive presence throughout the community. Each year, the unpasteurized honey from his bees ends up in jars sold at the Iowa Grown Market on Newport Road, in craft beer on the menu at Big Grove Brewery, and on shelves of the Solon Community Food Pantry. It’s tasty and much better for you than the mass-produced honey found in grocery stores.
“In order to keep it on the shelf for a long time, they heat it to a certain point,” Puettman said. “A lot of times the heat is too much for the enzymes.”
Bees have a much healthier way of processing honey, so it retains the most nutritional value.
“When bees collect nectar they hold it in their crop. Then when they go back to the hive, they don’t just put it in a cell, they give it to another bee,” explained Puettmann. “So it mixes with their crop and another crop, and the enzymes that are in those honey bees are put into the cells. So that’s the most healthful and beneficial part of the honey.”
Dean Colony agrees locally produced honey is always preferable to anything over-processed and diluted for a long shelf-life, especially for anyone with allergies.
“Local honey, because of the pollen, helps fight off allergies you might have,” he said.
To inoculate against allergic reactions to pollen where you live, Puettmann recommends getting raw honey within 10-15 miles.
Puettmann and Colony understand healthy bees are essential to the bounty of fruits and vegetables we often take for granted.
Reminding humanity of its biological relationship to bees is the whole point of the theme of the window display currently installed at Solon Trustworthy Hardware.
Solon resident Toni Russo describes the window display she created as a little bit of advertising and a little bit of street theatre and drama dressed up to be colorful and fun, with the goal of getting the community to think about an important subject.
“I wanted for a long time to do a bee window,” said Russo. “I knew that our long time city attorney, Jim Martinek, was a hobbyist beekeeper.”
She was thinking about a Shakespeare window also then, while looking through quotes, she landed upon Hamlet, “I thought, wow… to bee or not to bee. Let’s do it!”
The play on words makes noteworthy reference to the famous first line of Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which Shakespeare’s world-weary hero ponders death as an alternative to the burdens of life.
The window display asks viewers to consider the global decline of honey bees and how it may foreshadow a crisis for humans and their connection with the natural world.
Since every third bite of our food depends upon the mighty labors of those tiny pollinators, the security and diversity of our food supply is linked to the success of their species.
The term “colony collapse disorder” was coined in 2006 by a group of Pennsylvania researchers to describe the dramatic rise in die offs of honey bees reported in the U.S. and worldwide. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, losses of 30-90 percent of hives in the U.S. were characterized by sudden, unexplained disappearances of adult worker bees with very few dead bees found near affected hives. Though queens and younger brood bees, with access to ample honey and pollen reserves, appeared to remain intact for awhile, entire colonies eventually died without worker bees to sustain them. Entomologists and beekeepers who studied the problem point to three major factors in the perfect storm of stressors that continue to threaten honey bee survival: pathogen-carrying parasites, pesticides and loss of habitat.
Data from a national survey reported by the The Bee Informed Partnership, a nonprofit research organization for bee health and hive management sponsored in part by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, showed an average winter loss of 37.9 percent of bee colonies for 2016, down from 44.1 percent the previous year.
That aggregate figure for the nation is more optimistic than the losses Puettmann witnessed in his hives over the past few years. He said a 20 percent annual survival rate is average in his experience.
“I’m not sure why they die off. I’ve tried a lot of different things, like providing shelter,” Puettmann said. “I really don’t think the bees have a problem with the cold once you block the wind. I think a lot of it is mites. If you can’t get the Varroa Mite population down and keep the bees healthy into fall, you’ll see die-offs.”
Pinhead-sized Varroa destructor mites are insidious parasites. They hitch a ride into hives by attaching to drones and dropping into brood cells. Female mites chew holes in developing bee pupae and lay eggs that reproduce on young bees. As they mature, infested bees spread mites within their own and other hives in the course of stealing honey or relocating to another hive. The end result is a colony of bees with weakened immune systems and outbreaks of deformed wing virus and other diseases transmitted by the mites. Entire honey bee colonies die within three years if left untreated.
There are chemical treatments for the mites, but Puettmann said he really doesn’t want to put chemicals on bees. To mitigate losses, next spring he plans to try out some natural products on one of his colonies over at the park.
Puettmann believes another major threat to bee health are neonicotinoids: a neuro-active, nicotine-based class of pesticides that hit the market in the mid-1990s. Such chemicals are designed to kill sucking insects, such as aphids and soil insects like root weevils. Exposed in the crossfire of widespread use of neonics on the vast majority of fruits and vegetables, bees are collateral victims. These pesticides affect the central nervous system and impair the ability of bees to navigate.
“It doesn’t necessarily kill them outright, but they can’t remember where to go,” said Puettmann. “They leave their hive and never make it back. Honey bees can’t survive without a social system.”
Puettmann explains the dust from seeds coated with neonic pesticides tend to permeate the environment, “It’s like putting a powdered sugar donut in a bag and shaking it up so that lots of the sugar ends up in the bottom of the bag.”
“The same thing happens to seed planters, so that dust shoots out under the ground. And bees are just a haphazard insect. They’ll fly in grass, they’ll fly in corn, you name it. They’ll get that dust on them and bring it back to the hive,” he added. “That chemical is also systemic, so it gets into that plant, and the pollen on that plant, and the nectar in the plant. Then the insects that eat the pollen or nectar will be affected.”
Like most beekeepers and entomologists, Puettmann is concerned about colony loss, but is also encouraged by the increasing numbers of backyard beekeepers- a positive trend in grass roots efforts to improve bee health and restore their populations.
Jim Martinek is one of those backyard beekeepers. The clover and other native plants flourishing on his acreage in rural Solon create an excellent habitat for the two hives he tends, harvesting honey for himself and for gifts to family, friends and fishing buddies.
Martinek learned beekeeping through a program offered by Indian Creek Nature Center.
“It’s just a wonderful class,” he reported. “They take you by the hand, teach you on a class-by-class basis, and then you order your bees through them.”
An increasing number of people in the Corridor share Martinek’s enthusiasm for the hobby. Between 2015 and 2016, Indian Creek Nature Center tripled enrollment in its beekeeping classes, from 25 to 75 participants.
Martinek recalled the day, about seven years ago, when he received his first bees, “They come in a gigantic horse trailer. There’s got to be seven or eight hundred boxes in there. When they open the doors it sounds like somebody started a chainsaw in there.”
At the start of pollination season, Martinek gets two boxes of about 10,000 bees and a queen. He feeds them sugar water until spring flowers begin to bloom.
After her mating flight, the queen settles into the hive and lays up to 1,500 bees a day.
“It takes 21 days to go from a laid egg to a real bee. So once that 21-day period goes by, you’ve got an arithmetic progression,” he said, “to where there’s probably close to 100,000 bees out there now.”
Martinek said it was kind of disconcerting the first time he felt the weight of a number of bees landing on him. With practice comes the realization you’re buttoned up in a protective suit and veil, he added, and the early trepidation goes away.
“They’re really quite docile,” said Martinek of his Carnolian bees.
Unless you bother them by getting in the way of their mission of pollen collecting and honey making, they go about their business, he said.
“When they don’t have honey to defend, you can actually pet them,” he added.
Like Puettmann, most of Martinek’s bees are lost from his colonies over the winter though he’s pretty sure pesticides are not a factor for his hives. “Nobody within a mile has sprayed or raised crops in 30 years,” he said.
“I’ve had bees die in the winter that were alive and well around Christmas time,” he indicated. Since they’re not terribly expensive, $140 per box, Martinek just orders new bees each year treated with antibiotics to deter mites. He thinks the lack of food to last through winter is the most likely reason his bees die.
“I took so much honey that I killed them, so I’m going to try something different to see if they’ll winter over,” he said.
To ensure a sufficient store of honey, Martinek plans to leave his bees the flow from goldenrod, which blooms late in the season.
For those not ready to commit to investing in and keeping their own hives, there are plenty of other ways to act locally in support of bee health. Planting native wildflowers and other forbs (flowering plant species) can go a long way toward restoring the biological diversity of nectar-producing plants lost to urbanization and the expansive monocultures of industrial farming.
For inspiration, look no further than Toni Russo’s back yard in Solon where dozens of hardy native plants and wildflowers can be found. Lovingly cultivated and tended over decades into a Persian carpet of color, it offers waves of beauty and fragrance from early spring through late fall.
Russo’s plantings are a testament to the horticultural legacies of Solon’s past and a precious bequest for the future. Her yard is filled with heirloom plants, open-pollinated varieties that regenerate themselves. They’ve been handed down through generations along with the stories of the people who preserved them. When she first moved to Solon over 40 years ago, Russo used to walk the streets admiring the gardens and flowers.
“There were three roses in front of a house on Dubuque Street, a white, a pink and a red,” she recalled. “I’d never seen roses like that. They were fragrant and they’d just bloom once. And for a decade I would walk by them.
“Then one evening in the spring I was walking and something was wrong in my mind. I stopped and looked back, and they were gone. I was horrified. I came home and talked to my neighbor and said, we have to do something.”
Disturbed by disappearance of old flowers, Russo and some other women from her neighborhood formed the Solon Heritage Flower Society in April 1985.
They held meetings in Joensy’s to talk about ways to save and protect the plants. They gave talks at church groups and women’s clubs. They were featured on the radio and in magazines, such as Better Homes and Gardens and The Iowan. They connected with other groups, such as the renowned Seed Savers Exchange, based in Decorah.
These days, Russo’s reverence for heirloom plants intersects with her alarm that the pollinators for whom she curated a welcoming habitat are vanishing.
“Ten years ago, my yard would be full of dragonflies and all manner of bees– bumblebees, hornets, black hornets, hummingbirds,” she said. “Invertebrates…where are they?”
The environment is under stress, she believes, due in large part to the cumulative effects of chemical treatments and genetic modification of plants that produce monocultures of commercial crops and residential lawns.
Russo recognizes how it all works and offers many ideas for action. Through her window display and the example of her backyard, she urges everyone to consider multiple ways to bring back plant diversity for the pollinators in their own corners of the world. Her advice is to start small: look for old-fashioned, non-hybridized seed mixes for butterfly gardens, dig a little area and plant them. Let the lawn grow a little and stay away from chemical treatments. Welcome clover, the bees’ flower, and allow it to spread. Indulge in some benign neglect, let some thistles and weeds come as long as they don’t alienate the neighbors.
Visit the library and ask librarians for assistance learning about pollinators. Check out the beautiful garden books there, courtesy of the Women’s Club and the Solon Garden Club. “We have a fantastic collection,” Russo added.
Extend your awareness to the dinner table by seizing the many opportunities in our area to buy fresh, buy local, support local growers and farmers’ markets.
If you’re really ambitious, network and recruit others to develop community-level projects aimed at renewing public spaces with native plant species designed to promote habitat and health for pollinators. Models for this abound.
As reported in the Gazette last March, Linn County gained national attention for the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative. Over a five-year period, the plan is to convert 1,000 acres of unproductive public land, managed by the City of Cedar Rapids, into pollinator-friendly habitat by planting mixtures of native grasses, sedges and wildflowers.
Spearheaded by Cedar Rapids and the Monarch Research Project, the effort is a private/public partnership including the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, Linn County and the cities of Marion and Hiawatha.
As the no-mow, no-spray plantings mature, they cost much less for the city to maintain, improve water quality, reduce erosion and flash flooding and provide a succession of blooms that are esthetically pleasing and beneficial to pollinators and other wildlife.