St. Michael beekeeper seeks to educate public about honeybees
Sure, Gary Cobus of St. Michael enjoys collecting the honey from his beehives.
But that’s not why he studied to become a beekeeper in the first place. Much more important to him is the long-term viability of these buzzing creatures who pollinate much of America’s food supply. Beekeepers and scientists are studying why bee colonies have been dying off in dangerous numbers, in what is termed Bee Collapse Disorder.
“One out of every three bites we eat is attributed to bee pollination,” Cobus said. “(Collapse disorder) is a huge, huge issue, probably worse than people think. Bees are very important for fruits and vegetables. Without them we’d only have grains otherwise.”
The exact cause of Bee Collapse Disorder is being studied vigilantly, but Cobus said one factor is a surge of mites that began in the 1980’s. He said other causes include pesticides, viruses and loss of habitat.
“(Mites) are pretty much in every colony of bees now, so bees have the best chance if a they have a beekeeper who can monitor mites and reduce their numbers by using different kinds of tools,” Cobus said.
He also said there is a huge increase in systemic pesticides, meaning it’s in a plant and affects bad bugs (ones people want to kill) and “good insects” like honeybees.
“Few numbers of natural hives exist in North America because of all the pesticides and parasites,” Cobus said.
So when Deanna Sutphin of St. Michael contacted Cobus about a honeybee hive in her backyard, Cobus said it’s a good sign that bees are in the area. Unfortunately for Cobus, the bees moved by the time he could come to the Sutphin’s house and attempt to capture the hive. He did capture a hive last year in Buffalo.
So why are honeybees hiving in St. Michael?
“The reason why there were swarming is they were overcrowded wherever they were, like a backyard hive,” he said. “It’s a natural process for honeybees. When they get too big for their area, half the workers and the old queen leave behind the young bees and new queen.”
The old bees then settle in a tree or somewhere accommodating.
“Scout bees look for a new area, then they’ll go to it,” Cobus said. “The hive in the Sutphin’s backyard, they were waiting to hear back from the scout bees.”
Cobus said there’s a lot of misconception about honeybees, particularly people confusing them with their much more aggressive cousins, wasps and hornets. When honeybees sting, their stinger tears off and they die, so it’s their last resort to protect their home.
“Even though a swarm looks menacing, usually all they’re really doing is looking for a new home,” Cobus said. “They’re really not aggressive at that point.”
Additionally, he said the sting itself from a honeybee doesn’t compare to the pain from a wasp sting. “Honeybees should not be lumped together with wasps and hornets,” he said. “They’re not the ones who hang around your food at the picnic. People get them confused all the time.”
Cobus is a master gardener and was “in tune” with the importance of honeybees when he decided to take a class at the University of Minnesota to become a beekeeper. He is also a member of the Minnesota Hobby Beekeeper Association that meets once per month.
“Getting honey is secondary,” he said. “I’m just more interested in bees.”
And part of that interest is his own hives. Cobus said bees stay there because they “know it’s their home,” and can travel up to 3 miles away in search of plants to pollinate. He said bee swarms like at the Sutphin house in St. Michael are a natural process because bees build up in numbers in early spring.
“In mid-June to early July, they’ve outgrown their home and they have to move,” he said. “They start raising queens and the first one to emerge wins. It’s survival of the fittest.”
Cobus said that people at home can attract bees by planting native perennial flowers with good nectar sources, and he has some advice for people who don’t like dandelions.
“If you have dandelions, don’t mow them down,” he said. “They’re a good source of protein for bees. That’s what I like to do. Spread awareness to the public about the importance of bees and what can be done.”
Contact Aaron Brom at [email protected]
A hive of honeybees swarms in the Sutphin family backyard in St. Michael. The family contacted St. Michael beekeeper Gary Cobus but had moved to another location by the time he arrived. Cobus wants to educate the public about the importance of bees pollinating much of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.
St. Michael beekeeper Gary Cobus attends to honeybees at his home site. Cobus was called by the Sutphin family of St. Michael who had a honeybee hive in their yard.