Gardening dilemma leads to beekeeping passion for Foley resident

Lorenzo Langstroth (1810-1895)

Lorenzo Langstroth (1810-1895) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two years ago, Daryl Pichoff was tending his small garden in Foley when he stumbled across his passion … beekeeping.

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“I was harvesting cucumbers when I noticed some of them were curling and were not nice and long and straight like they were supposed to be,” he says.

Pichoff began researching the cause of his dilemma and discovered that cucumbers need to be pollinated in three distinct areas or they will curl in the middle, just like his were doing.

“So I began researching the best way to pollinate my cucumbers,” he says. The answer, of course, was honeybees.

That would lead him to the Baldwin County Beekeeper Association for advice. He eventually joined and is now the secretary/treasurer.

Two years later, Pichoff now has around 600,000 to 700,000 bees in 15 hives across Baldwin County, including hives in Robertsdale, Bon Secour, Elberta and Foley. He and his wife Susan sell honey and wax through their business, Sweet Bee Farm. The business also offers swarm removal.

A carpenter by trade, Pichoff now builds and sells what are known as Langstroth hives.

Originally bees were kept in skeps, which closely resemble the bees’ natural habitat, but require that they be destroyed to collect the honey.

Langstroth hives were built to be reused and consist of wooden boxes with frames inside, where worker bees produce honey and wax. The frames can be removed, honey and wax collected, then returned to the hive, where the process starts over.

A typical hive can house up to 60,000 bees, including about 40,000 to 50,000 workers, whose job it is to gather nectar and produce honey and wax, and about 1,000 drones, whose sole responsibility is to tend to the lone queen in the hive.

“It really is a complex and fascinating society,” Pichoff says. “There’s just an amazing order to things within the colony.”

The Baldwin County Beekeeper Association was established more than 50 years ago by Robertsdale Beekeeper Rex Aldridge who, at age 92, is the association’s oldest member.

Pichoff says he still gets together with Aldridge about once a week to help him with his hives.

“He’s still pretty sharp, but can’t do a lot of heavy lifting,” Pichoff says, “so I do it for him.”

In addition to being a forum for beekeepers to share information, the association also hosts seminars and classes, such as the Beginners Beekeepers Course, which is being held this week in Robertsdale.

“Our main focus is to generate interest in beekeeping,” Pichoff says, “and to raise awareness in hopes that people will be more friendly to bees — and we’ve come a long way.”

Through the association, Pichoff says, they have begun working with farmers, setting up hives on farms as a natural way to pollinate crops. They also educate farmers about the dangers of using pesticides. The association has even been able to reach out to pesticide companies.

Honeybees are responsible for 30 percent of our food supply through the pollination of crops,” he says. “I think farmers and pesticide companies realize that without bees, they would not have any crops to work.

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Major Fellowship Goes To Honey Bee Investigator at MSU

Earlier this year, Laura Brutscher helped young Montanans become “honey bee investigators” during a summer camp at Montana State University. The MSU graduate student has now received a major fellowship to expand her own honey bee investigations.

The Project Apis m.-Costco Fellowship will give Brutscher $50,000 a year for three years to research honey bees and the pathogens that infect them. Her mentors as she continues studying the role of microbes in honey bee colony health and how they relate to the recent surge in honey bee deaths are Michelle Flenniken in MSU’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology and Carl Yeoman in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences.

“I’m extremely glad and surprised I was awarded this fellowship,” said Brutscher, a doctoral student in microbiology and a Molecular Biosciences Program Fellow. “It’s definitely a great financial support, and it certainly adds fuel to the fire in terms of my drive to perform better research. I’m excited for the future opportunities to interact with beekeepers and other bee scientists and to share my findings with the beekeeping community.”

Flenniken said, “I’m grateful for the Project Apis m.-Costco Fellowship support and very happy that Laura was selected. She is a very deserving and dedicated student.”

It’s not unusual for businesses and nonprofit organizations to team up to address issues related to food production, Flenniken said. Project Apis m. – a title that incorporates the scientific name for the western or European honey bee — is a national nonprofit that supports honey bee research, infusing more than $2.4 million into research programs over the last eight years. Costco recently partnered with the nonprofit and is using some of the proceeds from the sale of Kirkland Signature honey to support honey bee research, including the “Ph.D. Fellowship in Honey Bee Biology” awarded to Brutscher.

“It is a natural partnership between Costco, a business that sells a large amount of honey and food produced from crops that require pollinators, and Project Apis m ., an organization that works directly with beekeepers and bee scientists to support efforts aimed at maintaining the health of this U.S. pollination force,” Flenniken said.

The committee that interviewed Brutscher consisted of a Costco representative, a Project Apis m. representative, a commercial beekeeper and two scientific advisers. They met Brutscher at the Costco headquarters in Issaquah, Wash ., and selected her out of four finalists.

“I felt like we had a really good, friendly conversation,” Brutscher said. “The interview committee did ask serious questions about the feasibility of my research and how applicable it would be in helping the beekeeping community.”

Christi Heintz, executive director of Project Apis m. and a member of the selection committee, called Brutscher a great young scientist who represents the future in bee research. She said Brutscher, in addition to having great potential to help solve challenges in the bee industry, is friendly, enthusiastic and has many qualities that will contribute to her certain success.

“Her capacity to help us with what ails the bee is tremendous,” Heintz said. “We are pleased to have funding from Costco to help her pursue her exciting bee research. She’s on the cutting edge.”

Brutscher’s research will incorporate both field and laboratory studies, including the use of advanced molecular biology techniques to identify which honey bee genes are most important for warding off viral infections. Her research will involve honey bee colonies in Montana-based commercial operations, as well as honey bee colonies at MSU.

For the studies involving commercial operations, Brutscher will work with one Montana beekeeper who trucks his hives to California every year to pollinate almonds. She will select study sites in Montana and then focus on 15 hives at each site. She will sample the hives to look for bacteria, viruses and fungi, and monitor the hives’ health over time to see if there is a relationship between certain microbes and colony health.

“It’s kind of neat being able to work so intimately with the bees in such a wide range of levels from the colony and individual bee down to the molecular level,” Brutscher said.

Brutscher grew up on a dairy farm in Little Falls, Minn ., where her main exposure to honey bees came from the commercial colonies that were kept near the family’s sunflower fields. Since coming to MSU in 2012, her exposure has increased. Not only does she research honey bees, but she helps maintain the honey bee colonies near MSU’s horticulture farm. In June, she shared her knowledge with “high ability/high potential” students who took the Honey Bee Investigators class at MSU’s Peaks and Potentials Camp. The summer camp is open to students entering fifth through seventh grade.

Flenniken said honey bees are a critical component of agricultural production, pollinating numerous crops, including almonds, apples, blueberries, citrus and melons.

“Interestingly, Montana is a beekeeping state,” she added. “It ranked fourth in honey production in 2011 and has ranked in the top seven over the last decade. The wildflowers and some of the agricultural lands in the state provide important summer forage for honey bees.”

State Entomologist Cam Lay said commercial beekeepers in Montana manage more than 180,000 colonies, most of which are transported to California to meet the demands of almond pollination each February.

He noted that Montana is the “summer ‘rest and recovery’ location for an awful lot of migratory beehives. Those are the guys that go to California every year to pollinate almonds. Many of them also make their way up the coast to Oregon and Washington to pollinate fruit trees, and then return to Montana for the summer.”

Unfortunately, Flenniken said, “The U.S. pollination force has suffered increased annual losses since 2006.”

Laura Brutscher (right, in full beekeeping suit) shows a hive frame to students who became “Honey Bee Investigators” during the 2013 Montana State University Peaks and Potentials Camp in Bozeman. (Photo courtesy of Laura Brutscher).
According to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), honey bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value per year in the United States. However, the total number of managed honey bee colonies has fallen from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today. From 2006 to 2011, annual losses averaged about 33 percent per year, with some of those losses attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

As a result, Brutscher and Flenniken are among the many scientists in the country who are conducting research to better understand the reasons for honey bee deaths. They are also working toward developing strategies to mitigate bee colony losses.
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Mite a threat to bees and pollination

A MITE that has been wiping out the honey bee in Europe and America is expected to arrive in Australia within the next five years, a bee expert has warned.

On the Border for a series of talks, Museum Victoria’s senior curator of entomology and arachnology, Ken Walker, said the Varroa Mite weakened bee colonies, making them susceptible to pesticides and viruses.

“The honey bee provides $5 billion worth of free pollination services,” Dr Walker said.

“So, you can imagine if they were to halve their pollination services like they have overseas, it would cause a massive loss of pollination.”Image

Dr Walker said fruit growers and honey producers, including Beechworth Honey, would potentially see enormous losses in their production.

“It will have a dramatic effect without a doubt,” he said.

This included increased costs due to the need for monitoring and the use of miticides.

“That’s why quarantine is so important in Australia,” he said.

“We are surrounded by water — it’s very hard to keep out, it’s all around us.”

Dr Walker is giving talks to students, teachers and school groups on Australian native bees, which are needed to pollinate native flora.

He believes educating people about bees would help them become aware of their importance to our ecosystem.

“Every part of our ecosystem has to work for the ecosystem to function,” Dr Walker said.

“And the more that people are aware what is around them, they will realise the reasons we have parks, conservation areas, and why we don’t spray everything.”

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Every connoisseur knows that the flavour of honey varies with its geographical location

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Every connoisseur knows that the flavour of honey varies with its geographical location

I’ve lost my heart to a dark, sweet forest-dweller. But let not this confession combined with the headline mislead you into imagining that I’ve been seduced into selling national secrets to the enemy. I am speaking quite literally of the product of the bee factory and the power it has over me. Do you suppose I was a bear in my previous life? I don’t need the excuse of a cough to have a go at the bottle, and if you (or the price tag) don’t stop me I could drain it out in a week, tops. Honey traps me into buying it whenever and wherever I see it.

Many of us who live in the city are attracted by the “tribal, organic” label. We picture the noble adivasi gathering honeycombs in the jungle and squeezing out the pristine, unfiltered nectar directly into 200 gm jars. We smack our lips and think, “Mm, can’t imagine anything more wholesome than that.” Would you feel the same if you saw a pendulous hive amid the cobwebs on the grimy wall of a tall building? Let me assure you that city bees are just as capable as their forest counterparts of providing tasty honey that is, indeed, often superior in flavour.

Every connoisseur knows that the flavour of honey varies with its geographical location. I personally favour the bees who labour in the forests of Thalli, but you may vote for Wayanad, Kodagu or Kumaon. My main grouse, though, is that we’re overlooking the fragrance of the jasmine in our backyard, to translate an old proverb. No study has been done on the subtle variations in the apian produce of Bangalore’s different neighbourhoods. A friend of mine in Jayanagar 8th Block gave me a bottle of the finest harvested from a tree on 10th Cross, and it was clearly distinguishable from the equally scrumptious honey extracted from a commercial building next to ours earlier this year. A man had knocked on my door and asked me, in what appeared to be some dialect of Hindi, whether I was interested in honey (he used the English word). A small crowd stood at a safe distance to watch the shrouded figure clamber up a ladder towards the two large hives and create a miasma of smoke around them. The man reappeared at my front door a little later, collected an empty glass jar with a screw top, and returned it full. I accepted, at face value, the weight he mentioned, and paid him the rate he asked for; the same volume would have cost a bomb in an organic store. In hindsight I wonder about his methods, and whether the dead bees I saw strewn on the pavement were merely collateral damage or whether he had used (horrors!) pesticide to decimate the entire swarm. Even when there are no hives in sight, though, I’ve seen random dead bees, which is perhaps an indication of the mysterious wave of casualties among the global bee population.

Last month I saw two men sitting on the pavement along Ulsoor Lake with a cloth spread out before them, on which stood two liquor bottles of cloudy liquid. Purveyors of fresh honey generally use empty booze bottles (that Honeybee is actually a brand of brandy is perhaps a coincidence), because they are readily available at the nearest raddiwala. The lakeside hawkers reminded me of many a trip to bosky regions. We were knocking about Coorg a couple of decades ago, driving aimlessly in the rain. Our wheels took us to Talacauvery. A man who looked as if he’d freshly emerged from the forest thrust two bottles of kaadu honey at our windshield. We stopped instantly and bought both. As the windswept rain forced its way into our cheap hotel room I developed a sore throat of sorts, which made me reach for the honey and take frequent swigs. That’s when I discovered the pleasures of knocking it back straight from the bottle. (Maybe I was not a bear but a drunkard in my previous life.)

Every time we cross the Karnataka-Kerala border in the Western Ghats, we look out for ‘small honey’ and ‘big honey’; this refers to the size of the bees, by the way. The tribal welfare outlet sells the stuff, rather inappropriately, in white plastic jerry-cans and it is up to us city-bred greens to transfer it into environmentally-friendly containers. A more recent experience, or should I say misadventure, of mine was in Munnar. A fast-talking hard-selling local was giving travellers a spiel about the nutritional value of natural honey. He displayed a row of filled-up bottles but refused to part with them, insisting instead on squeezing out a honeycomb right there and then, giving us the impression that it would be doubly fresh. He must have already filled part of the bucket with jaggery syrup concealed beneath chunks of comb. His successful sales pitch depleted our wallets by several hundred, and the honey I brought home hardened into crystals after a few days. Now I know that perfectly good honey might crystallise, too, and melts if you immerse the bottle in warm water. But these crystals were evidently signs of adulteration.

I had fallen into his trap all right, the always irresistible, sometimes deceptive, honey trap.

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