WOODSTOCK – Don Burda doesn't go to meetings of the Northern Illinois Beekeepers Association anymore. Too crowded.
The Woodstock-based, veteran beekeeper preferred the more intimate feel of meetings held in the middle of last decade, when 15-or-so people would sit around a table and talk strategy. Now, the meetings draw crowds over 100, he said.
The days when beekeeping was a secret trade reserved for a brave few are – in McHenry County as in much of Illinois – quickly disappearing.
"With all the media coverage on Colony Collapse Disorder, people are much more aware nowadays on the bee's importance to humankind," said Steve Chard, supervisor of the apiary inspection program at the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Only one case of Colony Collapse Disorder – which, as the name suggests, wipes out entire colonies of bees – was ever confirmed in Illinois. But regardless of the threat's significance, reports of CCD across the country got people talking about the importance of bees and reinvigorated public interest in managing them, Chard said.
"People are just darn intrigued with bees," he said.
The number of registered beekeepers in the state has more than doubled in the last decade, from 1,117 in 2003 to 2,519 in 2013, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The latter figure represents a significant jump from 2012 – when 1,825 beekeepers were registered in Illinois – and the highest number of Illinois beekeepers since 1990, when 2,705 were registered.
Some beekeepers have only recently discovered that they are required to register, which could play a factor in the increases. But Chard said that doesn't account for the entirety of the bump.
Burda, who owns Homestead Orchard in Woodstock with his wife, noticed the increases in about 2006, when students from a new McHenry County College program started joining the beekeeper club's monthly meetings at the McHenry County Farm Bureau.
"You go back maybe three, four years, there were so many people that we couldn't fit them into the room," he said. "You'd be standing outside, trying to hear."
The meetings have since been moved to a conference room at the college, but Burda – favoring the tight-knit feel of groups past – doesn't bother.
He is, however, an advocate for the transformative impact of the bees, which he says puts him at an advantage at his orchard.
Burda's main focus is on producing fruit, a task for which he employs the help of honey bees – whose honey he also bottles and sells. He was reminded how important they are this spring when his cherry trees blossomed early – before he'd received his yearly shipment of the natural pollinators.
"I have no bees to pollinate, so I have to depend on wild bees to pollinate," he recalled. "As I stand there, observing, there are very few wild bees to do that. As a result, we probably lost two-thirds of our cherry harvest – due to lack of bees."
Honey bees pollinate about a third of the plants that produce food humans consume, Chard said.
That fact, and the fact that wild bee populations continue to dwindle nation-wide, places a further importance on beekeepers.
There are 102 registered, active beekeepers in McHenry County, compared to 218 in Lake County and 18 in Boone County, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
In McHenry County, if interest in MCC's program is any indicator, the number will continue to rise, said Claudia Terrones, the college's coordinator of personal development programs.
MCC has offered three bee keeping courses each spring since 2006. The classes are non-credit and provided through the continuing education department. Between 10 and 20 people typically attend each class, Terrones said.
"There's a huge interest in beekeeping in McHenry County," she said.