Elma beekeeper, Ron Scholzen, lights up when discussing his “ladies,” a love affair of nearly 30 years and still going strong. It all began in 1989 when Ron befriended a Yelm area beekeeper and, through occasionally lending a hand, became hopelessly hooked. “Bees fascinate me”, says Ron. “When you observe them, you see intelligence. And no other creature works as hard as a honey bee.”
True. A honey bee devotes its entire existence to the survival of the hive, a job without breaks. A summer honey bee’s life lasts a mere few weeks, yet it typically flies over 50,000 miles to forage. A winter honey bee spends its six-month life clustered around the queen keeping her warm and fed. “When you keep honey bees, you form a loving relationship. You help each other. They pollinate our crops. They provide us with incredibly healthy foods like honey, pollen and propolis.” They also provide wax which has numerous uses, including candle making, cosmetics, salves, waterproofing, furniture polish, crayons and batik.
By the mid-90s, a serious problem had developed. Hives that had once flourished were being found empty, a phenomenon later coined Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Although the exact mechanisms of CCD remain unclear, contributors include loss of habitat, various pathogens, exposure to pesticides and introduction of the Varroa destructoras mite. Making its U.S. debut in the late 80s, the Varroa mite quickly swept across the country. Left untreated, it will annihilate a colony within two years. Ron lost half his hives to this parasite in just one year. How is it recognized? When a hive is in trouble due to disease or other factors, dead bees will be seen either in the hive or around its bottom board. When CCD strikes, no dead bees at all are found.
“What preceded CCD,” Ron explains, “was the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Since the pesticide is applied to the seeds, it becomes systemic as the plant grows. When the honey bees then collect pollen and nectar from these plants, they are immediately infected with the pesticide. The bees somehow sense this and, because it’s their job to protect the hive, don’t return to it.”
While most commercial beekeepers use chemicals to combat the Varroa mite, Ron stopped doing so 20 years ago. By far the cheapest (chemical methods cost about $50 per hive per year which can add up significantly over time), safest and most effective solution, according to Ron, is oxalic acid. This natural compound – found in rhubarb, spinach, cranberries and beehives – is available from most hardware stores as wood bleach crystals for about $8 a can. The mite eradication process is fairly simple. After placing a sheet of plastic on the hive’s bottom board and donning a protective mask, oxalic acid crystals are then heated in a pan-like device to create vapors. The vapors don’t harm the honey bees, yet effectively kill the mites. Ron says after vaporizing, he’ll find the bottom board covered in dead mites the following morning. Yet beekeepers are slow to embrace this method. When asked why, Ron simply shrugs and replies, “Preferences are difficult to change.”
With so much hive loss, one may wonder why honey hasn’t become a scarce commodity. “The regenerative power of the honey bee is amazing,” Ron asserts smiling. The queen begins laying eggs in spring. If she’s strong, the hive can rebuild dramatically (a strong hive contains 70,000 to 80,000 bees and produces about 80 pounds of honey). So even if there’s a tremendous loss – and that loss was 90 percent in the winter of 2015 – the honey bees so far have been incredibly resilient. Speaking of honey, Ron recommends buying it at farmers markets or directly from beekeepers to insure optimal quality (i.e., all medicinal properties intact). One way to tell if honey has been adulterated is that it won’t crystalize with time or cold temperatures.
Thinking of becoming a beekeeper? “We can always use more beekeepers here in the Harbor,” says Ron. “Our mild winters make it ideal. We also have plenty of moisture that can be harmful to bees.” Ron recommends an easy fix: drilling a quarter-inch hole in the front of the hive box. This not only prevents condensation, but provides the bees easy access for hive re-entry. A great local resource for both new and advanced beekeepers is the Olympia Beekeepers Association. They even offer a class leading to a Washington beginning beekeeper certification.
In addition to his passion for honey bees, Ron is also a mason beekeeper, a bee lecturer at various venues, including the Montesano Community Education Program, and a master gardener. “The bees need our help,” Ron says. “They give so much. I just can’t imagine what this world would be like without them.”