Caring for America’s Favorite Pollinator Takes Patience, Dedication and Community

July 23, 2019

This is part of a series of stories explaining the impact of climate change and other environmental factors on the population of honey bees, which are crucial pollinators for commercial crops.

For many, the journey into beekeeping doesn’t start with caring for their own hives – it begins with classes, club meetings and the knowledge of other beekeepers.

A growing number of Hoosiers are taking up beekeeping, working together to ensure the success of Indiana hives. Today, there are an estimated 5,000 beekeepers in the state, according to Debbie Seib, treasurer of The Beekeepers of Indiana.

Seib said The Beekeepers of Indiana has approximately 2,000 members in 30 clubs covering all 92 counties. For many beginners, these clubs are the support system they need to learn the basics to feel comfortable tending their own hives.

This is a photo of beekeeper John Suko and his bee hives.
John Suko, 71, keeps a handful of beehives in his backyard and more hives on a nearby friend’s property. He cultivates most of his hives to sell to other beekeepers looking to expand.

Patty Proffitt is an Indianapolis-based beekeeper who took advantage of local resources before she started to keep bees in 2017. She’s a gardener with plants that needed more pollinators and she loves honey, but she didn’t know the first thing about beekeeping.

“I went a whole year of just trying to learn about bees before I actually got them,” Proffitt said.

She said her network helped her build confidence and get her beekeeping hobby off the ground. Even after that first year, Proffitt continued to seek the mentorship of other beekeepers and drive more than 30 miles to attend monthly beekeeping meetings in Thorntown, Indiana.

Proffitt marvels at the generosity of beekeepers, a subculture she said she didn’t know existed until she joined it. Something she loves about the community is that everyone is eager to help each other with problems and that someone in the group always seems to know the solution.

This is a photo of a flower frequented by pollinators like bees.
Honeybees rely on a strong supply of plants from which they can harvest pollen and can get enough food to support the hive. The spread of farmland and new construction is destroying old bee habitats and causing more hive deaths each year.

“People don’t have the information and keep it to themselves,” she said. “They want to share it with you.”

When it comes to helping others, veteran beekeeper John Suko is as engaged as can be. He keeps an observation hive with a marked queen – a queen with a dot on her back to make her easier to find – and uses the hive for educational presentations, teaching everyone from schoolkids to state fairgoers the basics of bees.

Suko has been a hobbyist beekeeper in Anderson, Indiana, for less than a decade, but the road to beekeeping started in his teenage years. The 71-year-old retired nurse spent his adolescence in South Dakota, where he worked as a laborer on a bee farm, preparing himself for an interest he wouldn’t bring to fruition until 2011.

“It doesn’t start with bees,” he said. “It starts with equipment and training.”

Suko also helps maintain hives at the Community Hospital of Anderson and Madison County’s Community Garden, which were installed to help boost the low number of pollinators in the area due to a city ordinance passed in 1939 that prohibited beekeeping inside the Anderson city limits.

This is a photo of beekeeper John Suko checking on a honey frame.
Suko checks a frame from one of his hives to make sure the bees are developing healthily. Beekeepers regularly check on their beehives during the foraging season to ensure their hives are free of any problems.

The Anderson Board of Zoning Appeals voted unanimously in 2018 to approve the request for hives at the garden, saying the ordinance was “outdated.”

Most cities in Indiana now allow beekeeping. Suko lives in a residential part of Anderson and said he’s never had any issues with neighbors about his bees.

Proffitt has had a similar experience. She said her neighbors enjoy her bees because they pollinate their gardens. She also takes time to teach her neighbors’ children about honeybees and what they do for their environment. As for the neighbors she doesn’t interact with, Proffitt said she doesn’t think they even know she has bees.

Because some people feel uncomfortable having bees in their neighborhood, a few Indiana beekeepers have found a workaround – keeping their bees somewhere else. Jeanmarie Kane lives in a neighborhood in Noblesville, Indiana, but her bees stay on a hunting property in the Fortville, Indiana, area.

Kane said habitat loss is one of the hardest parts about keeping bees in Indiana, but she considers herself lucky that she has a friend who wanted bees on their property. There are no rules in her neighborhood or county against beekeeping, but she doesn’t keep them there because they wouldn’t survive.

“I don’t do it because I’m afraid,” Kane said. “I know my neighbors spray. They spray for mosquitoes; they spray for everything. And whatever the bees bring back to the hive will have pesticides in it.”

Kane started beekeeping because she knows bees are important to their environment and wanted to help by caring for a few hives.

“I think we need them, and they’re declining,” she said. “And I want to be a part of the solution.”

Honeybees face increased pressure from changes in land use that have resulted in a loss of habitat and less healthy pollen sources, according to a study published in Land Use Policy. Areas previously covered in clover have been developed with new construction, destroying bee habitats and other areas have been coverted to corn and soybean crops, which don’t feed bees.

Kane said there is a small but steady increase in the number of beekeepers in Indiana, but it’s hard to tell why more people are picking up the hobby. However, anecdotally it appears to be tied to climate change.

Frank Franks of Pendleton, Indiana, is another beekeeper who prioritizes the role of bees. Before moving to Pendleton, a beekeeper friend kept bees on Franks’ land, so when Franks moved onto an 80-acre property, he decided to get some of his own.

Frank Franks and his wife planted pollinator-friendly plants on their 80-acre property to promote their local environment and support their bees. They don’t use any pesticides or herbicides, making their land a great location for honeybees to thrive.

Franks grows organic fruits and vegetables, so his bees have plenty of plants to pollinate and aren’t likely to be killed by pesticides or herbicides.

“Bees are like the canaries in the coal mine,” he said. “If something is happening to them, something bigger is going on.”

Franks encourages other Hoosiers to get involved in beekeeping in order to restore the environment and boost bee populations.

Beekeepers such as Proffit acknowledge the need for more bees and beekeepers in Indiana. She encourages anyone to consider the hobby and give it a try, but not without the proper education and equipment.

“I think anyone can do it, as long as they want to do it,” Proffitt said. “You have to rely on others for guidance and be open to that.”

Any Hoosiers interested in taking up beekeeping should visit The Beekeepers of Indiana website for a list of resources and local clubs.

Caring for America’s Favorite Pollinator Takes Patience, Dedication and Community