Rodney Pritchard grew up around bees as a child in rural West Virginia, but it wasn’t until seven years ago that he took a greater interest in them. “After I had lost my first wife, I got remarried and my wife and I decided we needed to do something together, a project,” he recalls. That project involved a swarm of bees that had moved from an ash tree near their home to a nearby fence.
Unsure of how to take care of the swarm, Pritchard called the number for the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association to see if they could collect it. Pritchard became amazed at not only the quick precision of the beekeepers, but how simple the process was: “I thought, Well hell, I can do that…this is easy!”
Since that moment seven years ago, Rodney Pritchard has gone from being helped by the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association to becoming its president. With about 500 members, the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association (COBA) is focused on educating both the public and its members on the issues affecting the bee population. It is because of organizations like COBA that problems such as colony collapse disorder are now being combated.
Pritchard’s membership in COBA has connected him back to when his father and many others kept bees during pre-World War II America. Bees were essential as a sweetener during this period due to the absence of sugar. They were also present when Pritchard would return home for reunions or family vacations.
When he first joined COBA, Pritchard noticed how much it meant to his father. “I could see the light in my dad’s eyes as we were doing this,” he says. Pritchard soon bought bees for his father, who, at 83 years old, has started keeping bees once again. Bees, says Pritchard, have “always been in the family.”
But while bees and beekeeping can strengthen family bonds, it’s not the reason why beekeeping has grown in recent years. Beginning in mid-2007, after honey bee colonies had dwindled the previous winter, organizations such as the USDA and the Agricultural Research Service began to look into what became known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The results of this phenomenon have been devastating: data from the USDA showed a 34 percent loss in honey bees in 2010. A May 2015 piece in Columbus Monthly states that the number of bee hives today is half the number of hives in the 1940s.
The complicated part of stopping CCD is that, according to the USDA, “no single factor alone is responsible” for it. “When we talk about CCD…[it’s] more likely a combination of a lot of things,” states Pritchard, “a perfect storm of events happening.”
Pritchard highlighted three main factors behind CCD. The first and most obvious one is the increased use of chemicals. This has not only affected bees, but other pollinators such as butterflies. Weeds that are beneficial to pollinators (e.g., milkweeds) are being sprayed by chemicals such as Round-Up, thus affecting what the pollinators have to feed on.
For bees, the use of systemic chemicals is especially concerning, since the chemicals travel from the roots of a plant to the pollen that the bees bring to their hives.
Pollinators such as bees have also seen a decline in their nutrition—a problem based in part on current agricultural practices. “It’s all monoculture: beans and corn, beans and corn,” Pritchard argues. “There’s not this variety of products and plants that used to be out there.”
The other element responsible for CCD has been parasites such as the tracheal mite, which gets in the throats of bees, and the varroa mite, which sucks blood from both adult bees and larvae. Beekeepers have, for the most part, put a damper on these pests by injecting bees with chemicals that build resistance.
CCD has affected Ohio as much as any state. Pritchard estimates that Ohio went from having 30,000 hives to, at one point in time, 12,000. However, that number is has gone up due an “onslaught of new beekeepers.” Pritchard believes that more people are becoming beekeepers as a result of CCD: “The best thing about CCD is that it raised awareness…with millennials, and people my age that are concerned and have always had concerns with the environment and are more socially conscious. “Beekeeping is something they can do directly without a lot of cost or a lot of space, [and] can have a major impact on the community.”
Spreading awareness about CCD follows through on COBA’s main objective: education. Pritchard tries to “bring in speakers from across the country to [COBA]…to teach new methods and let our beekeepers be on the cutting edge of what is happening.”
Bringing in speakers is part of a larger education platform that includes meetings at Franklin Park Conservatory, having a bee yard at the Ohio State University, and Thursday evening summer classes at an apiary in Franklin Park. Pritchard believes that coming to events such as this is the first part to becoming a beekeeper: “The first thing we always say to a new beekeeper is to take a class…don’t buy a bunch of bees and read the books and get started.
“Bees don’t read books. Bees are always doing something that books don’t say they’re gonna do.”
In Ohio, the easiest way to find a beekeeping class is to go to the Ohio State Beekeeper’s Association website, where information on all beekeeping organizations in the state can be found.” The classes provide perhaps the biggest benefit to beekeeping, which is learning from older, more experienced beekeepers.“[Beekeepers] love to pass on knowledge,” says Pritchard. “You can talk to different beekeepers and they’ll all have different ways to do things.”
“Someone’s always looking for help, so you can mentor somebody or get involved like I have, where we’re out educating people, doing presentations to the community, [and] trying to pass off the knowledge that we have.” — Jared McNutt
Jared McNutt is a senior at The Ohio State University, majoring in English with a minor in Professional Writing. His two dogs–Bridget, 13, and Bailey, 7–are both schnockers, a miniature schnauzer and cocker spaniel mix.
Photo credit: Jean Beaufort