Honey bee closeup

Honey bees, or feral bees, that were removed from a fallen tree swarm the area.

KEOSAUQUA — Most people look avoid being stung by a bee just one time. Vern Ramsey figures he’ll be stung 20-30 times a day. Such is the life of a beekeeper.

“It smarts, but it doesn’t last,” Ramsey joked. “You don’t like getting stung around your face. The other day, I got stung 15-20 times on the leg. They were kind of ornery, but I’m used to it.”

Ramsey has 10 total hives at his home in Keosauqua and is in charge of one of several bee keeping clubs across the state. The Southeast Iowa Beekeepers had 16 members in class at Fairfield earlier this year with over 4,000 bee keepers currently active across the state.

“We up about 2,000 in the last few years,” Ramsey said. “There are 30 different places across the state where people can take classes.”

One of the smallest food producers in the animal kingdom, bees play a big role in agriculture. From pollinating crops to increasing yields and giving rise to a lucrative honey industry, bees are so important that millions are spent renting hives to pollinate farmers’ crops.

“Three bites of food out of every four you take is based on pollination,” Ramsey said. “If we lose bees, you won’t see a lot of products in the grocery stores.”

Which makes it all the more important to keep bees healthy. That hasn’t been easy in recent years between active weather changes to American foulbrood, a serious infectious disease of honey bees that affects the larval and pupal stages of brood development.

“The good news is this was our best year with only a 20 percent loss in bees,” Ramsey said. “There has been 60-70 percent losses in the last three to four years.”

Besides weather and disease, breeders have had to help bees fight off varroa mites. The tiny red-brown external parasites can feed and live on adult honey bees.

“They’re the size of a wood tick and have the same traits, causing malformation and weakening of honey bees as well as transmitting numerous viruses,” Ramsey said. “Several of them build up to kill a hive.”

Chemicals and other methods can control the parasites, but the mites have developed resistance causing some treatments to be ineffective. In some cases, the treatments can even backfire as the chemical Fernhout used to fight mites has also stopped queen bees from laying eggs.

“You have to stick with organic products and you have to treat the bees at the right time,” Ramsey said. “Otherwise, chemicals can build up in the wax and stay in the hive.”

Bees not only help pollinate crops locally, but have been takes across the country to pollinate crops in other regions including the almond crop in California. Ramsey and her fellow beekeepers across the state are still planning on heading to the Iowa State Fair this August, should the fair still be held, with hopes of being able to sell honey products and hold bee-keeping classes.

“It’s probably our biggest educational week of the year,” Ramsey said. “I’m not sure how it’s going to work. I think everyone is still trying to decide how hold it.”

Those interested in learning more about beekeeping can contact Ramsey by phone at 319-293-3555 or via e-mail at vdramsey@netins.net.

Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.

Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.

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