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Buzz about bees: Suited up & watching/listening

A steady hum vibrated the air by the open wooden structure protecting five hives as Norm Koster and his son Tim finished pulling frames weighted with honey from the hives. The honey bees expressed opinions.

“You definitely hear them,” Koster said.

His son had handed me a new white bee suit, which looked like something for moonwalking in space, and elbow-length gloves. Both men recommended I keep my camo baseball cap on to hold the mask off my face.

Tim Koster (left) adjusted frames of honey while his dad Norm gave the hive a smoking.

Credit: Dale Bowman

“When they are really mad, they bang you in the head,” said Koster, who had smoked the hive with a smoker his son had started from crumpled newspaper.

Three years ago, Koster became a beekeeper, one of the fastest growing pursuits in the outdoors. Membership in the Illinois State Beekeepers Association has exploded. Koster is a member of the Will County Beekeepers Association.

“You need honey bees for strawberries, pumpkins, gourds, apples,” said John Kiefner, a director with the WCBA, this week.

Kiefner has 11 hives near hayfields. Because of the alfalfa, he is proud of his light honey and that it does not crystallize as fast. Kiefner is the third generation of beekeepers. His grandpa Conrad emigrated from Germany in 1907 and kept bees on a farm in what is now the west side of Joliet.

“I catch a little bit of trouble with my wife,’’ Kiefner said. “One of the entomologists at the University of Illinois said one of the best things is to quit mowing everything. No-mow programs are catching on and it is really helping the bees.’’

So are protected natural areas.

“Will County has put in a lot of forests preserves in the last 20 years, so it is easy for bees to find [food],’’ he said.

He said bees will travel up to five miles, but prefer to stay within a mile.

“It takes 1 to 2 million flowers to make a pound of honey, hence the term busy bee,’’ Kiefner said.

Kiefner said hives need 50-75 pounds of honey survive the winter. And there are the mites, which had hurt hives. He is a strong believer that chemicals are essential in controlling the mites.

Bees are very weather-dependent, in part because they depend on pollen.

“In [the drought] of 2012, I harvested twice as much as this year,’’ Kiefner said. “The cold and rainy spell [early this summer] really slowed it down.’’

Koster has his hives between two truck-farm fields where tomatoes, watermelons and cantaloupes are raised.

As he pulled frames out of the hive, his son gently swept bees into the hive. From eight frames done earlier, Koster extracted 2 1/2 gallons of honey.

“I thought I would plop [the hives] out here and that would be it; but there is stuff you have to keep up with,” he said.

Norm Koster looks at the honey he has stowed his SUV.

Credit: Dale Bowman

He came to beekeeping with a mission.

“Mary and I were talking about it, then a prophet came to our church,’’ Koster said. “He asked, `Are you coming to church tonight?’ I said, `Yes.’ That night, he looks me in the eye and says, “Have you ever thought about bees?’ ”

He and his wife took that as a sign.

As the last frames were stowed, Tim Koster, feeling smart-alecky, suggested I lift the box of honey-packed frames into the back of SUV. It felt like hoisting a couple solid cement blocks.

A few leftover bees clustered on the back window as we readied to leave. Koster popped the window. The bees returned to the hives.

It was time.

Kiefner said that honey bees are often confused with the “assholes of the bee world’’–paper wasps, yellow jackets.

“A honey bee gets a lot of maliciousness from people because of them,’’ he said. “Unless you step on them, honey bees never want to sting anybody. It kills them.’’

The public most often spots bees in early summer when they swarm. Capturing swarms is one of the key things beekeepers do. Kiefner said he had a dozen calls this year and was able to get two swarms.

“Beekeepers will rush to catch a starter swarm,’’ Kiefner said.

For WCBA, go to willbees.org; for ISBA, to ilsba.com.