Central Delaware
Honey bees can make farmers’ lives sweeter
Strawberry farmer Ken Outten shows off his honeycomb find. He has about 50 honey bee stations at his farm in Felton, that help to pollinate his crops. (Delaware State News/Jen Rini)

FELTON — Catching a swarm of bees is easier than it looks, at least according to strawberry farmer Ken Outten.

“You basically knock them in a box and you got them,” Mr. Outten said.

For the past 10 years the Felton-based farmer has been using bees as an additional method to pollinate his crops. He immediately saw his harvest and berry quality increase.

“I was really scared of bees before beekeeping,” he said candidly, but now he can pluck a bee out of the air by its wings.

Using bees as a managed pollinator of crop plants in the United States is not new.

There are more than 4,000 species of wild bees in North America, with 200 species found in Delaware.

Though types of native bees such as bumble bees, mining bees and carpenter bees pollinate fruits such as apples, blackberries, cucumbers and watermelons, in Delaware, honey bees are the most common.

Bob Mitchell, state apiarist, said there are approximately 200 beekeepers registered in the state for honey production or crop pollination, though there is a small percentage of resident hobbyists.

He said the bee populations fluctuate from year to year depending on influences such as the weather or disease patterns.

This spring was very cold and rainy, which was not conducive for honey production. It’s easier for flowers to produce more nectar in drier climates, which in turn, can increase honey production for bees.

“Every year is a moving target,” he said.

Since bees are insects of temperate climates, he explained the colonies mainly decrease over the winter months, dipping from up to 60,000 bees per colony to around 20,000.

In addition to native bees, it is common that bee keepers import colonies to the state. Mr. Outten originally imported his colonies from Georgia, but had trouble with the hives surviving the winter.

Beekeepers import about 3,000 such migratory colonies a year, Mr. Mitchell said. These migratory colonies are usually used for watermelon and cucumber crops in areas from Milford to Delmar. The bee colonies can be moved within the state at least two or three times a season.

“It is an industry on wheels by its very nature,” he said.

Bee hives can be kept on trailers or in boxed cases. Mr. Outten uses dry pine needles or hay to line his boxes. To check the hives he must don bee-keeping gear, including a white zip-up coat with a full head covering and carry a smoker, which triggers a fight or flight response for the bees.

“They don’t really like that too much,” he said, when their hive is disturbed. “They will let you know.”

In any case, Mr. Mitchell said they must contain movable frames that can be inspected for diseases.

Honey bees can contract bacterial infections, viruses, fungal diseases as well as internal and external parasites. External parasites such as mites are especially difficult.

“They are a tough one to control. The insecticides that kill the mites sometimes hurt the bees,” he said.

As state apiarist, Mr. Mitchell also works to find new management techniques to preserve the bee population, and a lot of the time there are simple solutions.

He shared that a few years ago there was an internal parasite that was devastating to the honey bees, and the best control for the parasite was to slather Crisco shortening on the honey combs.

“It was safe and you could eat the stuff,” he said.

Staff writer Jen Rini can be reached at 741-8250 or Follow DSNJen_Rini on Twitter.