CRYSTAL LAKE – Beekeeping has been creating quite the buzz in McHenry County over the years as honeybee populations in Illinois continue to struggle.
Larry Krengel, a beekeeping instructor at McHenry County College, has been teaching people the ins and outs of keeping colonies for about two decades and said he has seen a rapid increase in interest in the hobby.
The college holds seminars in the spring to prepare for bee season, which typically begins at the end of March. This year, the course had so much interest that it was broken up into two sessions.
“I think many people feel they can be of a help because of the problem the honeybees are having,” he said. “I also think they find a fascination with it. The world of the honeybee is quite intriguing.”
About $15 billion worth of U.S. crops are pollinated by the honeybee, but populations are declining because of a variety of factors, including vicious parasites and what has been known as colony collapse disorder – where mature worker bees leave the hive, and the queen and remaining nurse and immature bees don’t survive, Krengel said.
The No. 1 challenge local beekeepers face now is a parasite called the varroa mite, which made its first appearance in the U.S. in the late 1980s.
“It now exists in every state,” Krengel said. “There is no way to get rid of it. How to manage it is the biggest challenge.”
It’s not just the honeybee that is in danger. The rusty patched bumblebee is an endangered species and recently has caused headaches in Algonquin. Its potential presence has halted work on the already-controversial Longmeadow Parkway project near Randall Road. The bee is the first bumblebee to officially be named endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The issue is national. At the beginning of 2016, the number of honeybee colonies was down 8 percent from 2015, with varroa mites being the top cause for loss, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
General Mills recently removed its iconic mascot from its Honey Nut Cheerios boxes in an effort to raise awareness of the issue.
But backyard beekeepers are making a difference, Krengel said.
“My philosophy is that it very well could be the small-scale beekeeper that saves the day,” he said. “I think having many bees in many places is how we will save the bee.”
In McHenry County, there are 113 registered beekeepers and a total of 1,305 active colonies, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Jerry Gudauskas of McHenry got started because he noticed his own garden wasn’t being properly pollinated. He now is studying at the University of Florida for a master’s in beekeeping, belongs to many beekeeping organizations around Illinois and Florida, takes care of 15 hives and raises queen bees.
“It’s an amazingly complicated little insect,” he said. “I never realized how complicated it was until I got into it.”
Gudauskas said that he keeps bees in part because the sustainability aspect is important.
“We all need to be cognizant of who we are, what we are and what we are eating,” he said. “Our food sources are really hurting. … If you think about what you eat, a third of that has to be pollinated by something. If we didn’t have bees, we wouldn’t have almonds. We wouldn’t have coffee. We wouldn’t have pumpkins. … We can’t survive on a mono diet. We need variation, and that is what pollination does.”