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Beekeeping clubs and classes are growing, with a mission to help stop the decline of the honeybee population

The queen bee ( darker and longer, in center of photo) in one of beekeeper Jerry Linser's hives, in Grant, Mn., on Sunday, May 4, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)1 / 2
Beekeeper Jerry Linser takes apart a beehive to take a look at the bees inside, on Sunday, May 4, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)2 / 2

GRANT, Minn. -- In Jerry Linser’s apiary rehab clinic, he holds one of his clients between his fingers.

“I know where you’ve been,” murmurs Linser to a honeybee, as he gently lifts it to the bee screen around his face. “You have a honey-tummy full of stuff, I can see it.”

Linser was tending to one of the 150,000 residents of his Bee Ranch in Grant, checking to see how they survived the harsh winter. In an effort to reverse declines in bee populations, Linser is among the hundreds of Minnesotans who have jumped onto the beekeeping bandwagon.

One sign of the buzz around beekeeping is the success of the Stillwater Honey Bee Club, which has jumped from four members to 160 in 14 months. The University of Minnesota Extension Service has seen an increase in beekeeping interest, and Bob Sitko, who teaches at Century College, said his beekeeping classes are “overflowing.”

Their mission: saving mankind’s best friend in the insect world.

In the past, Linser said, about 10 percent to 15 percent of beehives in the U.S. died over the winter. In the past several years, the die-off has soared to 40 percent to 80 percent.

Why all the buzz kill?

Bee mites, pesticides and lack of food are three big reasons.

The mites, tiny parasites that attack bees, are widespread. “It’s the wood tick of honeybees,” Linser said.

Common pesticides are suspect, including neonicotinoids. These are among the most popular insecticides in the world, spread widely on commodity crops and available in garden centers.

Linser said the neonicotinoids appear in pollen, where bees can pick it up and take it back to their hives.

Bees’ food sources are disappearing. Bees depend on nectar from flowers, but as suburbia sprawls into natural areas, another source of pollen vanishes.

A neatly mowed lawn? “That is like the Sahara Desert to a honeybee,” Linser said.

The so-called bee-pocalypse is alarming because bees are natural gardeners. As they fly from flower to flower, they transfer pollen — which fertilizes plants and allows them to reproduce.

“Without bees, there would be no melons, no berries, no nuts,” said teacher Sitko, one of the founders of the Stillwater club. Bees are responsible, he said, for about a third of the world’s food production.

Bees are so valuable that they have become immigrant farm workers. Roughly half of the nation’s domesticated bees are annually trucked into California, where they are essential to fertilize the state’s almond crop.

Last weekend, Linser suited up for his chores, donning a white bee smock, complete with a built-in zip-up helmet.

He loaded some green grass into his smoker, which is like a coffee can with a bellows to fan the flames inside.

Carrying a bucket of tools, he entered the bee pen, about the size of a double garage. He passed through the electric fence, which keeps bears and other critters away.

With the steady monotone buzz of thousands of bees in his ears, he began to check each of the 19 hives. He already had ordered 18,000 replacement bees, about 6 pounds of insects, to make up for the bees lost over the winter. The box, sent from California, included tinier boxes, like thrones, for the queens.

By each hive, Linser squirted a few puffs of smoke to calm the bees. He noted with satisfaction that one experiment had worked — a hive he insulated last fall survived the winter with few casualties.

Speaking from inside the bee helmet, he explained that he is doing genetic engineering of his own. He picks out which bees to breed, looking for bees that are disease-free, docile, tough enough to survive winter, and good honey producers.

At one hive, Linser suddenly stood up straight. “Oooh,” he said. He held up an index finger with a bee hanging on, stinging him. The finger swelled up like a bratwurst.

Other people might have reacted by, say, putting on gloves. But not Linser.

His relationship with bees is not just about business. Even with a swollen finger, he continued to pick them up and feel them wiggling — almost affectionately. He wanted to encourage them, feed them, comfort them and talk to them.

He tenderly held up a small worker bee. “Why, just look at you,” he said proudly, “all covered with pollen.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

How to help Minnesota’s bees

Here are a few tips from the Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Association, the Honey Bee Club of Stillwater and the University of Minnesota Extension Service:

  •  If you see bees clumped together in a mass, don’t interfere with them. Bees swarm before they find a permanent home.
  •  Eliminate garden pesticides. The Extension Service recommends avoiding pesticides in general, but particularly neonicotinoids, which are common in pesticides sold in garden centers. Check product labels.
  •  Grow plants that bees like, including bee balm, anise hyssop, lupine, asters, Autumn Joy sedum, sunflowers and herbs such as thyme and oregano. In open areas, clover and alfalfa also feed bees. For more bee-friendly plants, visit the website of the Extension Service,

Fun facts

Bob Sitko, beekeeping instructor and founding member of the Honey Bee Club of Stillwater, has compiled some remarkable facts about bees:

  •  Bees don’t hibernate. They swarm into a ball in the winter and wiggle from the outside to the center and back out. That generates a constant 93 degrees in the ball’s center.
  •  If a spider wanders into a beehive, the bees can’t sting it. Instead, they swarm around it until the heat from their bodies kills it.
  •  If a mouse wanders into a hive, bees will sting it to death. Then they preserve it with a coating of a substance they produce called propolis, which keeps the corpse intact for as long as two years.
  •  When it is time to breed, a queen will take flight — the only time in her life she will leave the hive. In midair, she might mate as many as 15 times.
  •  When it’s time for a hive to have a new queen, the bees start to feed a few young bees a substance called royal jelly that transforms ordinary bees into egg-laying queens.