By Amy Eddings
Mike Lablonski, beekeeper, wood worker, auto mechanic and beer brewer, describes himself this way:
“I’m that little geeky kid, sitting on a stump,” he said. “Ask me how to get a girl, I couldn’t tell you. But I can tear a tractor engine apart and put it back together again, and then do something as delicate as inseminate a bee.”
The divorced 56-year-old handyman may not be lucky with females of the human species, but his life is filled with girls — girls of the species Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee. He keeps and breeds bees. He builds and sells hives. The lawn of his brick home in Forest, in Hardin County, is peppered with brightly painted wooden hives. He estimates he’s got 100 colonies.
“My grandfather got me interested in bees when I was 9 years old,” he said. “I started my first colony when I was 13.”
Lablonski is one of 4,838 registered beekeepers in Ohio and their interest in bees has grown in importance. That’s because there’s been an alarming decline in the country’s honey bee population. In 2006, beekeepers first sounded the alarm about disappearing hives, a phenomenon now known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Since then, researchers estimate that nearly one-third of all honey bee colonies in the United States has vanished, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Last winter was a mild one, but even so, Ohio’s apiaries lost 50.07 percent of their bees, according to a survey by the Bee Informed Partnership. The typical winter loss is around 15 percent to 20 percent.
Fewer bees means fewer pollinators for crops such as apples, cantaloupes, cucumber and almonds. The global economic cost of bee decline, including decreased yields and increased production costs, has been estimated at as high as $5.7 billion per year, according to NRDC.
Researchers say bee loss is due to four factors: global warming, which has caused flowers to bloom earlier or later than usual; pesticides, which may not kill bees directly but have lethal effects over time as their residues build up in a hive; pests and pathogens like varroa mites and foulbrood; and habitat loss, which leads to malnourished bees.
“A colony needs an acre of forage,” said Barbara Bloetscher, state bee inspector with the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Apiary Program. “I can be driving around in an area where I know there are 80 beehives, but there’s nowhere near 80 acres of forage.”
Fields of corn and soybeans don’t count because these plants are of no nutritional value to bees.
“It’s the wildflowers, it’s the weeds that used to grow along the roads,” she said.
For those alarmed by the disappearance of bees, like Michele Colopy of Akron, providing forage is one easy way to take action. Colopy, program director for Pollinator Stewardship Council, a national advocacy group, has gone so far as to kill her front lawn (she smothered it by covering it with clear plastic) and replace the grass with wildflowers.
“Grass feeds nothing except carbon emissions and lawn mowing,” she said. “Unless you’re grazing goats, it isn’t feeding anything.”
Others, though, are motivated to do more by raising bees. Beekeepers are reporting an uptick in interest. St Marys beekeeper Mike Doseck, president of the Great Grand Lake Beekeepers Association, said membership has grown from 20 to 70. And participation in the group’s introductory beekeeping class has doubled.
“Our club, last year, we had 20 people,” he said of the group’s introductory beekeeping class. “This year we had 40. There’s a lot of women taking it up.”
He said other beekeeping clubs are experiencing similar growth.
Lablonski said he can’t keep up with the demand for queens, the heart of every hive.
“I’m sold out right now,” he told a caller while checking his hives on one of the first warm days of the spring. “We will not have them until mid-June.”
He prides himself on breeding docile bees. He performed his beekeeping duties in just a short-sleeved T-shirt and sweatpants. He was not wearing a hood, or body suit of stingproof fabric. He did not wear gloves.
He slowly lifted the lid of the hive. Bees drifted out. Some landed on his shirt and bare forearm. Lablonski paid them no mind.
“I’m looking to see if the queen’s laying, if the brood’s healthy,” explained Lablonski, who was a former apiary inspector for Hardin County. Varroa mites and bacterial diseases like American foulbrood can quickly overtake a hive and spread to other hives.
He used a hive tool to scrape away sticky globs of propolis, a combination of beeswax and resins that bees use to seal openings in the hive.
“They glue everything down with it,” said Lablonski. “Believe me, they do a heck of a job.”
He pried out one of the frames hanging in the hive box, working slowly and deliberately.
“You don’t want to roll or crush your queen, or have her fall out and fly away,” he said. “Then you’d need to get a new queen and that can get expensive.”
A starter package of three pounds of bees and a mated queen, delivered through the mail, can run around $100 to $150. A pine hive box with frames, a landing board and lid costs around $150. Then there’s the gear: hive tools, honey filters and extractors, honey knives, beetle screens, mouse guards and supplements to help battle mites and disease.
Beekeeping is not a rainy-day hobby, though it can be presented that way. “Simple step-by-step instructions!” promises one website, which sells a “quick start” beekeeping kit. But an afternoon with Lablonski shows it’s not quick and easy at all.
“One of most important things to do is read,” said Lablonski. “Get into a beekeeping club. Immerse yourself.”
Beekeeping is animal husbandry. It requires knowledge and forethought. There’s a lot more to it than setting up a hive, dumping a package of bees inside of it, and closing the lid. But Doseck said the work results in pleasures that are sweeter than honey.
“Once you get in and see what they do, they are totally fascinating,” he said. “They are one of the most wonderful insects in the world.”
There are all sorts of books and online resources available to those interested in beekeeping. Here are just a few.
• Ohio State Beekeepers Association. The group has regional representatives, a list of master beekeepers and resources including a newsletter and the free “Web-Based Introductory Beekeeping Program.” Visit ohiostatebeekeepers.org.
• Ohio Department of Agriculture. ODA’s chief mission is to ensure the health of Ohio’s apiaries through registration, inspection and education. Ohio’s state apiarist, Barbara Bloetscher, can be reached at 614-728-6373 or [email protected] Visit agri.ohio.gov/apiary.
• The Ohio State University. OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences runs a Bee Lab that is “dedicated to research and outreach on topics related to honey bees and wild bees.” It offers webinars.
• American Beekeeping Federation. A national organization that lobbies on behalf of beekeepers for legislative priorities that include research funding, promoting and protecting honey bee habitats, making crop and disaster insurance available to beekeepers and protecting the American honey market. Visit abfnet.org.
• Greater Grand Lake Beekeepers Association. Meets on the second Tuesday of the month, 7 p.m., St Marys Community Public Library, 140 S. Chestnut St., St Marys. No meetings in June, July and August. Contact Mike Doseck at 419-394-4215.
• Northwest Ohio Beekeepers Association. Meets on the fourth Thursday of the month, 7:30 p.m., Pandora-Gilboa High School, 410 Rocket Ridge, Pandora. No meetings in June, July, August or December. Contact Dwight Wilson at 419-722-1953.
MIKE LABLONSKI’S READING LIST
“First Lessons in Beekeeping,” by Keith S. Delaplane.
“The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture: An Encyclopedia Pertaining to the Scientific and Practical Culture of Honey Bees,” by Amos Ives Root. Root founded A.I. Root Company in Medina, renowned for its beeswax candles.
American Bee Journal, $28 for one-year print subscription, $16 for one-year digital subscription, americanbeejournal.com.
Bee Culture, The Magazine of American Beekeeping, $25 for one-year print subscription, $15 for one-year digital subscription, beeculture.com.