New EDN logo

Michelle Barnick of Cowden has always been abuzz about bees.

"They're intriguing little boogers," she said.

She's a member of the Crossroads Beekeepers, a local community of beekeepers affiliated with the Illinois State Beekeepers Association. With a global uptick in interest in bees and honey, the local group has been thriving – as concern mounts about "colony collapse disorder."

The club has about 100 registered members, although membership isn't required for attendance.

"I think people have become more involved and more cognizant of where their food comes from, from organic to gluten free," Barnick explained. "They're thinking about the ramifications food has on their health."

She thinks hearing about colony collapse disorder also sparks an interest. The disorder is somewhat of a phenomenon. Barnick said it's when all the bees in a colony die or leave without a trace, with no discernible factors or explanations.

"It's an effort on all sides to find a solution to this problem," Barnick said.

In addition to the bees she keeps on her own farm, she provides pollination services to a relative at Happy Hollow Family Farm in St. Elmo, keeping four hives there to pollinate pumpkins.

At Happy Hollow, the bees must visit the pumpkin blossoms at least eight times. Without the proper number of trips, the pumpkins would take on more of a strawberry shape than their traditional globus shape.

Barnick also gives crash courses in beekeeping to friends. She recalled a time recently when she showed the ropes to an 8-year-old with a fascination for bees.

"I suited him up, and he could have stayed in there all day," she said.

The parents were supportive, but not eager to get close themselves.

"Mom stood at a distance, and dad stayed in the truck," Barnick confided. "People get worried around bees, but it's like the saying 'calm mom, calm baby,' just 'calm beekeeper, calm bees' instead ... The first rule of beekeeping is don't swat."

Her handmade soaps, lip balms and other beauty products have been a hit locally, including at Fresh Digs in downtown Effingham. Barnick's bees help with these creations, lending the beeswax used to make them.

She's always liked handmade soaps, and she thinks that artisan spirit is making a resurgence.

"There's a general leaning toward knowing where things come from and who's making it," she said. "They (Fresh Digs) go through (my) soap like that," she added, snapping her fingers.

Barnick's honey is always in high demand, and said that's true of the honey produced by other local beekeepers, too. She never has enough of the stuff.

Honey production is where the hive mentality is essential -- a single bee can only produce a twelfth to an eighth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. That's about two or three calories' worth.

That's why working as a team to regulate the hive is so important to a colony. About 64,000 bees inhabit a hive, from the queen -- who lives for about three to five years and lays about 2,000 eggs a day -- to her all-female worker bees, who take on the tasks of caring for their leader and the baby bees, guarding the hive -- "They're usually the ones with the stingers" -- pollination and even temperature control, keeping the queen at a balmy 90 to 92 degrees.

There are, of course, male drones. But their main purpose is for reproduction.

The workers can even "overthrow" the queen, designating a new queen from an egg if the hive is not thriving.

"The workers determine what's needed, Barnick said. "They can even make a swarm cell and split the hive when it's doing really well."

With all the intricacies of beekeeping and bee colonies, it's easy to see how Barnick could be fascinated with the striped insects.

"I always wanted to keep bees," she said. "Nature and being outside has always intrigued me."

The beekeeping community is the same way, she said: friendly and ready to learn and teach.

"You will never meet a beekeeper who isn't a nice person," she said. "It's a friendly community."

Bee tidbits

Illinois honey cannot legally be labeled organic. Bees can fly for three miles, and everything within that circle must be organic to gain the label.

When purchasing honey, the label should only say "honey". If it says honey "sauce" or "product," it may not be pure honey.

Eating local honey -- honey harvested in your area -- may help build immunity to local allergens.

Recommended for you