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Published July 28, 2014, 11:15 AM

Minn. man has passion for pollinators

WORTHINGTON, Minn. — There has been a lot of buzz about bees in recent years with the sharp decline in the honeybee population, Colony Collapse Disorder and fears there might one day not be enough honeybees to pollinate the trees and plants that bear our fruits and vegetables.

By: Julie Buntjer , Forum News Service

WORTHINGTON, Minn. — There has been a lot of buzz about bees in recent years with the sharp decline in the honeybee population, Colony Collapse Disorder and fears there might one day not be enough honeybees to pollinate the trees and plants that bear our fruits and vegetables.

The buzz has led to a surging interest in beekeeping in Minnesota, where metro-area beekeeping clubs have formed and University of Minnesota-led classes have filled virtually as soon as they are offered.

For Jay Milbrandt of rural Worthington, Minn., the appeal of the honeybee stems from an apple tree deeply rooted in his family’s history.

His great-great-grandfather, H.J. Ludlow, propagated the first ever Okabena apple tree from a tree he found growing in the wild in Nobles County in the late 1800s. Descendants of those trees are a rarity to find today. Milbrandt connected with one grower in Washington State who owned a single Okabena apple tree.

The grower wasn’t willing to part with his tree, however, so Milbrandt coaxed his parents into getting one of three established Okabena apple trees from their home in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The tree was planted on the Milbrandt property along the shores of Lake Ocheda two years ago and, with the help of Chuck Nystrom, owner of Ocheda Orchard and “one of the best grafters in the nation,” 15 new trees were propagated and planted not far from the full-grown Okabena apple tree.

While getting the trees established took some work, it was only the beginning for Milbrandt, who wants to ensure the trees remain healthy and eventually bear the small, yet hardy and tart, Okabena apples he knows will taste great in pies and applesauce.

Honeybees were needed to pollinate the trees, so with some self-education offered through beekeeping books, online resources and a Minnesota-based beekeeping blog, Milbrandt ordered three 5-pound packages of honeybees this spring. Each package contained about 5,000 bees.

“I thought we’d start a couple of hives,” he says, adding that during his research, he also discovered his great-great-grandfather had beehives for a time.

“I feel like it’s a family tradition,” Milbrandt says.

The bees, shipped from California, now fill three towering beehives on the Milbrandt property. Set back in clearings along a tree line, the boxes are abuzz with honeybees transforming the nectar they have gathered into a sweet, sticky mass of honey.

The honey is simply a welcome byproduct of having the beehives, says Milbrandt, saying that in addition to pollinating the apple trees, he wanted to be part of a movement to encourage more honeybees in the area.

“I didn’t see a whole lot of them out here and I still don’t, actually, having the hives,” he says. “That was one thing we were worried about — are there going to be bees everywhere? But there really aren’t.”

More than three months after setting up his hives, Milbrandt now estimates there are close to 100,000 bees on the yard.

Clad in a white beekeeping suit, a formed mesh hat to protect his head and neck, gloves that reach to his elbows and Velcro-strapped leggings to prevent bees from getting inside his suit at the ankles, Milbrandt checks on the hives every seven to 10 days.

Each box contains a series of frames on which the bees create their honeycomb, and Milbrandt monitors the progress of honey production, the health of the bees and the presence of queen cells, which indicate whether a hive is getting ready to swarm.

Milbrandt says heat and humidity increase the chances of a honeybee swarm.

Aside from monitoring the bees, Milbrandt says they don’t require a huge commitment of time.

“They kind of take care of themselves — you’ll feed them a little bit in the winter and the early spring until the flowers (bloom),” he says. “They’re just fascinating creatures.”

Milbrandt and his wife, Lisa, have planted some prairie flowers on their property and plan to do some native grass seeding to provide more opportunities for the honeybees to feed. They have also “let the dandelions go” for improved bee habitat.

“A lot of people don’t like dandelions, but a perfectly cut, mowed lawn is like a desert to a bee,” he says.

Promoting beekeeping

To further promote beekeeping, new federal legislation allows beehives to be placed on Conservation Reserve Program lands, and more recently a Farm Service Agency program has become available to beekeepers who might incur losses to Colony Collapse Disorder, Milbrandt says.

“They’re trying to encourage people to do this with their land, and I think around here it might be a way to generate some income off some land they aren’t using for other purposes,” he adds. “There’s a lot of talk about eating local honey because it helps with allergies — a preventative allergy medicine in a way.”

As for the Milbrandts, they are spending their first year in beekeeping just making sure the colony survives and grows. Honey will be reserved for the bees to get through the winter, and any extra might eventually be given out as gifts or sold at the local farmer’s market.

Milbrandt encourages more people to take up the beekeeping hobby and says he’d like to see a beekeeping club formed in southwest Minnesota to help share information about honeybees.

Perhaps one day, Milbrandt will see honeybees pollinating not just Okabena apple trees, but Ocheda plum trees on his property, as well. His great-great-grandfather is credited with discovering the Ocheda plum tree. The only known descendant of that tree has been found on a neighboring property on the east basin of Lake Ocheda.

Milbrandt hopes to propagate the plum tree also, but it is more challenging than propagating apple trees.