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Missouri Beekeeping in Jeopardy 

Produced by Hope Howard, Jamie Hobbs, Hailey Hofer and Tong Li 

It’s harder than ever to raise bees, and the beekeeping community might be the best classroom

Hope Howard

COLUMBIA– As a beekeeper with 45 years of experience, Sam Crowe has seen the challenges of the beekeeping industry.

Crowe serves as a consultant for the Midwest Master Beekeeping Program. He says the major challenge of beekeepers today is keeping bees alive amidst growing numbers of pests threatening bee populations. Because that challenge is not best addressed in a classroom, Crowe believes programs like the Midwest Master Beekeeping Program miss the mark on making a long-term difference with beekeepers.

According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture and beeinformed.org, a website that collects survey data from US beekeepers, the number of honey bee colonies dropped significantly in the 1980s when new pests, such as the tracheal mite and the Varroa mite, were introduced to US bee populations.

“Each of those (pests) causes problems that the beekeepers have to deal with,” said Kim Kaplan, the chief of special projects for public affairs at the Agricultural Research Service at the USDA.

To combat the decline of honey bees, beekeepers started using a number of costly techniques to artificially increase the population. One expensive option is buying pre-packaged bees to replace the ones that die. The other technique requires beekeepers to split a healthy colony into two and purchase an additional queen bee to lay eggs in the new colony. Both techniques increase the chances of fertilization, which increases the possible number of bees in a colony. And both are expensive.

The financial difficulties created by the decline in honey bee populations illustrate what Crowe calls a “45-year-old learning curve.”

Dr. Moneen Jones, the director of the University of Missouri Extension Master Beekeeping Program, recently went on to create the Midwest Master Beekeeping Program after being let go because of budget cuts. The goal of the new program is to allow more people in the Midwest to become certified beekeepers and to promote bee population growth. The program at the University of Missouri Extension, which has ended, was confined to the state of Missouri. Now, Jones says the Midwest Master Beekeeping Program covers six states: Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and Michigan.

The new incarnation of the program offers a range of certifications, starting with Beginning Beekeeper to Certified Master Beekeeper. According to its website, the new Midwest Master Beekeeping Program “trains and educates beekeepers on new techniques, equipment, potential problems, and tips and tricks to improve their beekeeping skills.”

The curriculum of the Midwest Master Beekeeping Program focuses on a standardized education. Although the program requires students to join a local beekeeping club and find a mentor, Jones said beekeepers have to find support outside of the classroom. “We can only do so much,” Jones said. “In terms of hands-on beekeeping, that is the job of the local associations.”

Sam Crowe said the program was not as effective as it should have been because beekeepers aren’t getting a hands-on education on raising bees to thrive in a challenging pest-ridden climate. And that, he says, is necessary to the success of any beekeeper.

“The program isn't teaching beekeepers what is going on (or) how to keep them alive for long periods," Crowe said. Anyone can keep bees alive for the first year, he said, but by the second year results will be less impressive, and in the third year beekeepers might not even be making honey at all.

"The focus on the program has been to learn everything that is out there about bees,” Crowe said. “And really, you can't do that right away."

Instead of classroom instruction, Crowe said beekeepers should join a local beekeeping club to learn from seasoned beekeepers that are willing to share their experiences.

"You have to learn to do the things that work, not necessarily the things that are preached," Crowe said.

Although there isn’t a solution to fix the financial burden beekeepers face in mid-Missouri, Crowe believes the problem can be improved through peer-to-peer education and people working together within the community.


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