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Published May 19, 2014, 09:26 AM

Minn. sees increase in beekeepers

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

By: Bob Shaw, St. Paul Pioneer Press

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, says his beekeeping classes are “overflowing.”

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

In the past, Linser says, about 10 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 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 says.

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.

Minnesota lawmakers called for a pesticide review, saying the study should include the possibility of restricting or banning some pesticides.

Linser says 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 says.

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,” says Sitko, one of the founders of the Stillwater club. Bees are responsible, he says, for about a third of the world’s food production.

Bees are so valuable 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.

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

He loads 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 enters the bee pen, about the size of a double garage. He passes through the electric fence, which keeps bears and other critters away.

With the steady monotone buzz of thousands of bees in his ears, he begins 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 squirts a few puffs of smoke to calm the bees. He notes 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 explains 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 says, holding up an index finger with a bee hanging on, stinging him. The finger swells 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 continues to pick them up and feel them wiggling — almost affectionately. He wants 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 says proudly, “all covered with pollen.”