Chris LaSalle and his 12-year-old daughter, Samantha, are dressed from head to toe in white beekeeper suits.
Bees are buzzing around them this sunny Wednesday morning as LaSalle gently lifts frames from inside a hive as Samantha uses a smoker to calm the bees.
It hasn't really been warm enough until recently for LaSalle to begin to check the hives and find out how his bees fared over the winter. He's lost a few this winter and is down to 10 hives, he says. He has four at his home on Coldwater Road and so far things are looking good.
Spring is a busy time for bees and their beekeepers. Honeybees are among the first of the species to become active each year, which means with the warmer weather residents will begin to see more bees buzzing about looking for food to replenish diminished stocks for the hive.
Spring also provides an opportunity for residents to get involved in protecting bees by doing a few things around their home that will help boost the bee population.
Winter is a tricky time for beekeepers because they don't really know what will happen to the bees, LaSalle says. They could lose a colony because of disease-carrying mites, moisture building up in the hives and extreme cold. In addition, few plants bloom outdoors this time of year which could cause starvation.
Although the bees will live off the honey they stored for the winter, LaSalle puts a candy block, which is basically sugar, inside the hives to provide additional food for the bees. But sometimes that's not even enough.
LaSalle checks to see if the queen bee is alive in his hives. She has been marked with a yellow dot. LaSalle marks his queens with a different color based on the year so he can see how old she is. So far both queens are alive in the two hives he checked. There are also signs of eggs and larvae, which are good things.
There is some mold and other stuff on the screens that LaSalle will have to clean, but he's feeling pretty good about the health of his hives.
LaSalle has been a beekeeper for six years. He is president of the Northeast Indiana Beekeepers Association, which has meetings the third Thursday of each month. The association puts a lot of effort into educating the public and helping more people start their own hives.
He says the worst thing people can do for honeybees is to have a perfectly manicured lawn. LaSalle says dandelions and clover are great for bees.
Megan Ryan, lead educator and beekeeper with Southwest Honey Co. in Fort Wayne, says dandelions are the first spring flower and often get a bad rap. “We encourage people not to hate on the dandelions so much,” Ryan says.
She also suggests that people not treat their lawn with chemicals, which can be harmful to the bees. Ryan says she understands that society tells us that a green lawn is better, but she hopes that people will decide to keep the weeds.
“We share this space with the other creatures around us, and all the things we are doing for aesthetic purposes are harmful for their environment,” Ryan says.
Southwest Honey Co. focuses many of its programs on outreach, providing educational opportunities for both children and adults, Ryan says.
Now in its fourth year, Southwest Honey has had more than 1,500 people in its program, she says. If just half of those people make a change, “that's a big chain of people and that's a lot of change,” Ryan says.
Education and awareness are what the honeybee needs, she says. “It's going to take the people in the community, not just the farmers and beekeepers.”
LaSalle says anyone can get involved in beekeeping. He says it may be frustrating at first, but he encourages people to stick with it. He also encourages beginners to come to the beekeepers association meetings where they can learn tips and tricks and advice from others on how to start a hive.
Ryan suggests that people do research and educate themselves before they start a hive. She spent an entire year researching and learning before starting her first hive.
LaSalle says some people also become frustrated because beekeeping can be expensive at first. Bees are about $120 a package, and it can cost about $500 for a beginner bee kit, he says. However, if a person is handy, they could build their own hive. LaSalle says there are instructions on how to build a hive online.
But Ryan says the most important thing is for people to make themselves aware of honeybees – especially knowing the difference between a honeybee and other bees.
Honeybees are docile, LaSalle says. If you see a bee at a picnic, that's not a honeybee, he says. More than likely it's a yellow jacket or wasp. “(Honeybees) are not interested in us as long as you are not messing with the hive,” LaSalle says.
And of course during this time of year, gardeners can help the bees by planting pollinator plants that haven't been pretreated with any chemicals, Ryan says.
LaSalle, who is a physician at Orthopedics Northeast, is hopeful that more people get involved in beekeeping. He has seen an increase in people coming to the association's meetings and wanting to start their own hives.
For him, not only does he do it because “we love honey,” but LaSalle says this is a chance for him and his daughter to spend quality time together. “This is sort of daddy and daughter time,” he says.
But the honey, which he collected 36 gallons of last year, is also another delicious benefit.
Megan Ryan of Southwest Honey Co. is advising people to be aware of the upcoming swarm season
This is when a queen bee will leave the hive and take part of the colony with her in search of a new place to live.
The swarm season usually happens about June.
Residents will recognize a swarm because bees will be in a cluster together maybe in a tree or on the side of a house or in other locations.
What do you do if you find a swarm?
Call a beekeeper, Ryan says, and not an exterminator.
Southwest Honey Co. has on-call volunteers that will go out and rescue the swarms and find a home for them. That way they will have a "natural habitat instead of someone's mailbox," Ryan says.
If you see a swarm, you can call Ryan at 609-2897 or Chris LaSalle, president of the Northeast Indiana Beekeepers Association, at 615-3647.
'Bee' a helper
• Know the difference between honeybees and other bees. Not all yellow insects are bees. Helpful bees, such as honeybees and bumblebees, are vegetarians and are not out to get you. Wasps are carnivores and enjoy eating your lunch meat and drinking your soda. Wasps and yellow jackets are often confused with honeybees.
• If a bee is around you or lands on you, try to remain still and calm. It will soon fly off. Swatting or brushing it off may cause it to sting.
• Don't ever stand in front of a hive opening if you find yourself near a beehive. Try to stay out of a bee's way and it will stay out of yours.
• Leaving clover and dandelions in your yard is a great thing for bees. Dandelions are one of the first spring blooming plants that give honeybees access to pollen and nectar early in the year.
• Don't treat your lawn with chemicals.
• Plant bee-friendly herbs, trees and flowers. For spring flowers, that includes lilacs, lavender, sage, verbena, wisteria and penstemon. In the summer, mint, cosmos, squash, tomatoes, pumpkins, sunflowers, oregano, rosemary, poppies, black-eyed Susan and passion flower vine.
• Put out a water source for insects, including honeybees. Create a sort of bird bath with rocks in it so the bees will have something to land on.
Source: Southwest Honey Co.