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Beekeeper talks shop on bees

Submitted photo: Mike Tow working with his bees.

FAIRMONT — With spring in full swing and summer arriving, many people may start spending more time outdoors and encounter small, but very important agricultural helpers: bees.

Environment Minnesota said that in recent years, beekeepers report they’re losing on average 30 percent of all honeybee colonies each winter.

Fairmont’s Mike Tow is a local beekeeper who also experienced the loss of his colonies during the winter.

Tow began working with bees long ago when he was still in high school. After a significant break, he’s been working with bees again for several years.

He explained some basics of a bee colony. Each colony has one queen, hundreds of worker bees and male drones.

Each bee plays its own important role. The queen is noticeable because she’s slightly bigger than the rest. As the only reproductive female in the colony, her role is production.

The worker bees are all females, but non-egg laying and the drone are all males and their role is to fertilize the queen.

“Once the fall comes, the queen quits laying as many eggs and it reduces the colony size. The workers throw all the male drones outside of the hive at first frost,” Tow said.

In early spring, the queen begins to lay eggs and the colony will grow to be very large in the summer months. In the winter, the colony might shrink to around 20,000 bees after the male drones are thrown out.

When asked how bees fare in Minnesota, Tow explained that bees actually thrive in the Midwest.

“You have to have food sources for them, which means nectar sources,” Tow said.

The Minnesota DNR says there are more than 400 species of native bees in Minnesota. Some of the most well-known bees to the general population include honeybees, sweat bees and bumblebees.

Honeybees are genetically predisposed not to sting because Tow explained if they sting you, they die. An exception is if a honeybee feels threatened it may sting. There are also certain varieties that are more aggressive, such as Africanized honeybees.

Other recognizable types of bees include sweat bees. However they don’t sting and Tow pointed out they’re not even a bee, they’re really a fly. There are also a lot of varieties of bumblebees, and Tow said unfortunately a lot of them are going extinct.

“I don’t think there’s any type of bumblebee that’s not bigger than a honeybee. They’re all bigger and rounder,” Tow said.

Bumblebees also shouldn’t sting unless they’re disturbed. While bumblebees aren’t part of a hive, they play a big role in pollinating.

Tow will soon get more colonies and hopes to get back up to full production. He and his family bottle and sell honey under the name TNT honey.

“It takes a lot of nectar to make a pound of honey,” Tow said.

Aside from honey, Tow and his family use the wax cappings to make beeswax candles, chapstick and magnesium lotion. They’ve also made honey gummy candies and plan to make honey taffy.

He said that while they don’t, you can also harvest the pollen and the propolis.

“Bees make a lot of different things, but the primary thing they do for us is pollination. There are other pollinators, but they’re not anywhere near as prevalent as honeybees. They’re the most prevalent pollinator that there is,” Tow said.

He further explained that honeybees pollinate nearly all fruit trees including apples, oranges, cherries and pears. They’re also essential to the production of nuts, including almond trees in California.

“You wouldn’t get a tenth of your crop if you relied upon other pollinators,” Tow said.

As previously mentioned, Tow lost all of his colonies during the last few months and he believes the culprit is pesticides.

The Minnesota DNR says the state’s honeybee population has been declining since 2006 and lists several stressors including loss of floral resources, climate change and pesticides.

“When you use any kind of insecticide, you’re actually contributing to the problem of why honeybees are dying off in such astronomical numbers,” Tow said.

He suggested people use natural pesticides that are not toxic, like vinegar.

Another way to help the bee population would be to grow bee friendly gardens and include plants like

bee balm, butterfly bushes, honeysuckle, clover, milkweed, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans and wildflowers.

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