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Honey bees are making a slow comeback

Beekeeper Jeff Ludwig tends to the bees in one of the hives he manages. He currently has 35 bee colonies, mainly at the Byron Forest Preserve.
Beekeeper Jeff Ludwig tends to the bees in one of the hives he manages. He currently has 35 bee colonies, mainly at the Byron Forest Preserve.

Honey bees are making a slow but sure comeback after an estimated one-third of them died in the last few years from colony collapse disorder.

Byron beekeeper Jeff Ludwig said effect of the disorder has eased somewhat for the small insects, which are noted for their industriousness.

The publicity about the disappearing bees had at least one positive effect, he said.

“It peaked interest in beekeeping,” he said. “We’ll always need honey bees. They’ve hit a bump in the road, but that has increased interest.”

More people are coming to the classes he teaches on the topic at the Byron Forest Preserve, and as a result more people are getting started raising the prolific pollinators.

Honey bees are a crucial part of the food supply because they pollinate hundreds of crops.

Colony collapse disorder was reported in North America in 2006 when hundreds of bees abruptly disappeared from their hives.

“Colony collapse was simply sick bees leaving the colony,” Ludwig said. “Bees are really smart. They knew they were sick.”

The biggest cause of the illness, he said, was parasitic mites.

“The honey bees are able to take care of the mites, but the bite leaves a wound and that leaves the bees open to viruses and bacteria. It’s the viruses and bacteria that wipe out the bee colony,” he said.

Intensive selective breeding over several years is the source of the problem, Ludwig said.

Bees naturally groom each other and get rid of mites that way, he said.

However, grooming or hygienic behavior is a recessive trait.

Years of selective breeding for bees that were better pollinators and honey-producers almost eliminated the hygienic behavior.

Now selective breeding is being used to bring that trait back.

“We have to breed bees to be better groomers,” Ludwig said. “Bees aren’t as resilient as they used to be because with intensive breeding over generations they have lost the trait to groom.”

Pesticides used to kill the mites only worked for a brief time, Ludwig said, because the insects became resistant to the chemicals.

“It’s not medicine that’s going to fix this,” he said. “It’s the hygienic behaviors of the bees that will cure it.”

Ludwig has been keeping honey bees for 25 years.

He became interested because his brother as a teenager worked for a beekeeper in rural Forreston after school and on weekends.

The beekeeper gave Ludwig’s brother bees and equipment to get started.

When his brother went into the Air Force, his father took over the hives but soon discovered he was allergic to bee stings.

They then became Ludwig’s project and passion.

“Beekeeping gives you a chance to be outside. Bees are a social insect. There’s always something to learn,” he said. “It’s always amazing to see how they work together.”

He said he has seldom been stung and has no serious allergy to their venom.

“Honey bees are usually fine unless you mess with their home,” he said with a chuckle. “Most of the time they are just too busy working.”

Ludwig currently has 35 bee colonies, many of which he keeps at Byron Forest Preserve, where he serves on the board.

“It’s good there for the bees and they, in turn, pollinate the wildflowers,” he said.

Bees need meadows with flowers to collect the pollen needed to make honey, he said. More and more land being turned over to corn production has eliminated that resource.

He hopes to expand to 50 colonies. This year’s mild winter was good for his bees.

“I checked them a couple of weeks ago and they’re doing well. They’re really healthy,” he said. “I’m hoping for a good summer.”

As long as the colonies are healthy and the food supply is plentiful, Ludwig said bees are very low maintenance.

“I always say the beekeeper is just the landlord,” he said. “Just keep them dry and up off the ground. The main thing is to keep the workers happy. To them you’re just the maintenance guy.”