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Kansas farmers are using bees again to increase crop health

By Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News

WINDOM, KAN.» With a nudge toward the past, Kansas farms are using bees once again to increase crop health.

During the early 1900s, bees were prevalent in the state. Jorge Garibay, a beekeeping consultant from St. John, and others want to increase their numbers once again.

Garibay said in 1977 there were more than 40,000 colonies in Kansas. Now there are just under 7,000. Garibay raises bees, produces hives and sells honey. He works with farmers to try to increase their yield and diversify.

Yields for soybeans, cotton and sunflowers increase substantially with hardworking bees nearby. Garibay said six to eight hives on one acre of crop usually increases the yield, and in the case of sunflowers, the weight of the commodity. Approximately 4,000 bees live in a hive.

Although soybeans are self-pollinating, Garibay said the yield increases from 10% to 40% when honey-pollinating bees are present.

Although bees visit cornfields to gather pollen, Garibay said there is no known benefit to the crop. But, he recommends farmers plant a row of nectar-producing plants between corn rows to benefit the bees and provide nutrition for the corn.

“You’d be producing two crops on the same ticket,” he said.

For sunflowers, the bee’s benefit is substantial, increasing seeds by up to 60%, Garibay said.

Garibay gives presentations to farmers throughout the state.

Joe Swanson, of Santa Fe Trail Farms, started using bees last summer. Garibay installed several hives near his crops, which the beekeeper takes care of, including harvesting the honey for Swanson.

“We were already focused on soil health, but the bees add another vector for pollination, and we might add a little income on the honey,” Swanson said.

Garibay said humans and bees need to find a way to work together. Sometimes he is called in to gather swarms of bees and relocate them.

“One hundred years ago, the farmers had the bees on their land,” Garibay said. “Feral honeybees are not dying but running low on habitat. I hope I can turn a page on this.”

In 2019, Garibay placed 140 honey boxes to catch feral bees. He then brought the bees to locations where they thrive.

“We tend to overcrowd them in mainstream, conventional beekeeping,” he said. “The great thing about bees is that they manage themselves. They feed themselves, self-breed, store up supplies for winter and clean themselves.”

Tony Schwager, owner of his family-run business, the Bee Shop in Lawrence, sells Italian and what he labels as “survivor bees.”

“They’re really good bees,” Schwager said. “They resist mites. They’re a tried-and-true breed.”

Schwager works with farmers and urban agriculture customers. He also teaches classes and sells all types of beekeeping equipment.

Rick and Vickie Turner, of Gridley, went into beekeeping after they retired. The Turners have raised bees for three years and have 10 hives. Recently, the couple received a grant from the National Resources Conservation Service to help take care of the habitat of the monarch butterfly.

“Jorge mentors us,” Vickie Turner said. “He’s the one who got us to convert to horizontal (beehives).”

Tim Gogolski is a beekeeper in Osage City. He has worked with bees as a hobby since he was 14 and now has 15 hives. Gogolski, like Garibay, manages hives for others.

“When I retired, my wife told me to have something to do,” Gogolski said.

Other farmers want to diversify for both the health of the crop and the income honey could produce.

Jerry Birdsell, who owns a farm in Jewell, said one of his sons is interested in working with bees. Along with milo, corn, wheat and soy, Birdsell grows sunflowers, buckwheat, canola and safflower on Birdsell Family Farm. In addition to the soybeans, bees enjoy canola and safflower plants.

Darren Nelson, of Nelson Bower Farms in Windom, is thinking of starting to work with bees with his three children, ages 7, 8 and 10.

“I’m always looking out for something they could do so they could start earning money,” Nelson said. “I can put them through college with bees.”

Garibay and other beekeepers are ready to answer questions about bees.

“We have to believe that change will happen,” Garibay said. “Farmers and not nomadic beekeepers will be the stewards of honeybees in the future.”

 

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