KENTLAND — There’s a new kind of gold rush sweeping Newton County, and once a month, prospectors from all across the region come together to talk about the tricks of the trade. But these prospectors aren’t panning for this gold; they’re harvesting it from hives and jamming it into jars. Drive down any road in the county and you’re apt to see a faded, clapboard sign propped up on an old wooden fence advertising “HONEY FOR SALE,” because the gold rush is here, and its fruits are rows upon rows of golden, gleaming jars.
Like any gold rush worth its salt, this one began on a small farm right in Kentland —the Voglund Farm. On the first Wednesday of every month, a meeting of the Iroquois River Beekeepers convenes there. They sit around their table and compare notes, bounce ideas off of one another. They share “war stories,” as member Dan Voglund says. These prospectors have jobs and families, but they make time for their passion and attend the meetings as regularly as church on Sunday. It truly is a devotion; one member, Mac McDaniel, says that he’s only missed two meetings in four years. But it wasn’t always this way.
The club has its origins in a meeting of the Soil and Water District about five years ago. There, a researcher by the name of Dick Rogers spoke about the importance of bees and bee culture. At the time, there was a startling lack of bees in the community. That did not sit well with Rogers, who encouraged attendees to take up beekeeping, to start up apiaries of their own.
It’s easy to forget about the honeybee. Most of the time, they’re out of sight, out of mind, and when you do see them, they’re picnic annoyances, stinging menaces. However, it would be a mistake not to recognize their importance; according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pollinators (bees chief among them) are responsible for one out of every three bites of food you take. A world without them would be a very bleak place indeed.
More than 50 people attended the meeting, and among them were the founding members of a new beekeeping club: Andrew Martin, Dan Voglund, Mac McDaniel, and Liz Valee. With guidance from the Illinois Apiary Inspector, they bought their first packages of bees: angry, buzzing packages that surely were removed from the post office just as soon as possible. Not long after, they held their very first meeting.
Martin took something of a bee census — at the time of the first meeting, there were only 23 hives in the group. But now that the gold rush is in full swing, that number’s over 200. That’s over 1.2 million bees that the club has brought to the community, bees that want nothing more than to make sweet, sweet honey.
Like any gold rush, prospectors come and go. While there’s a core group of 20 to 30 dedicated beekeepers, interested parties will blow into town from all around the region — Voglund says they’ve had participants from Newton County, Benton County, Jasper County, and even Tippecanoe. There’s only one official beekeeping organization in the state, and regrettably, none of the aforementioned counties have a chapter. So the prospectors come to Voglund’s humble home to socialize, to seek advice, or just to learn the fundamentals of beekeeping.
“We were all there once,” Andrew Martin says, to those who are just learning about bees. A good portion of that initial group didn’t even have hives when they came to the first meeting — just heads that were ready to be filled with knowledge. Martin invites those who are similarly uninitiated to try a meeting or two. Beekeeping is a serious investment, both of time and of money. There’s no better source of perspective on the hobby than the beekeepers themselves.
Voglund concurs. “Anybody who takes up beekeeping should find a group to bounce ideas off of,” he says. “They can help you or you can help them.”
Some of the biggest areas of contention in the group, understandably, are those where the stakes are the highest: those concerning the survival of the bees. There’s no shortage of threats to the wellbeing of the fragile little pollinators: Varroa destructor mites, members of an invasive species introduced in the late 1980s that latch onto the bees and suck out their fat body tissue; neonicotinoids, dangerous pesticides that can stunt growth in bees and weaken their immune systems; and hive beetles, another invasive species whose members destroy the hive itself.
“There’s no one answer to these problems,” according to Voglund, but there’s certainly a dire need for one. A survey by the Bee Informed Partnership found that last winter, thirty-eight percent of beekeepers’ colonies died. That’s the worst winter die-off in a decade and a sign that beekeepers are very quickly losing the arms race against the myriad threats to their buzzing wards.
Voglund cites mites as the number one reason that colonies die. “You need to decide whether or not you’re gonna treat for mites. If you’re not, you might as well save your money.” And yet many beekeepers, even a few in the club, still don’t treat for the parasites.
Martin agrees that the Varroa mites are a serious issue. “(For humans) it’s like having a parasite the size of a grapefruit on the back of your neck, sucking out your blood.” You can survive it, he says, but you’re not going to fare too well.
Still, not every matter discussed in the club is one of life or death. Sometimes, a rare find will bring them all together, like miners ogling over a new vein of gold, rich in untapped glory.
One such find occurred when a club member, Jerry Carroll, found a case of honey in his basement. Jars upon jars of the sweet stuff, hidden away like buried treasure. According to the label, it had been harvested from the apiary of one Clarence Moshier. Carroll brought his find to the club, and came to learn that Moshier died 24 years ago. The honey was nothing short of an artifact. So what did the club do? What their curiosity commanded them to do, of course.
“It was brown, and it looked more like molasses than anything, but we passed it around the table and we all ate some of it, tasted it,” Voglund recounts. He in fact still has six or eight jars of that particular archaeological find.
No, they weren’t risking their health in trying the honey, because that liquid gold has an expiration date of never. Rumor has it that the archaeologists who uncovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in Egypt found honey there, too, and it was also still edible — although, considering the Egyptians used honey as an embalming fluid, it might be better to pass on that particular treat.
It’s difficult to talk to beekeepers as enthusiastic as Voglund and Martin and not come away with the belief that the hobby is seeing a rural resurgence. Beekeeping as a hobby originally took off in the twentieth century when farmers and their friends, their families picked it up and ran with it. In the 1980s, however, it largely died off — mainly due to the threats presented by exotic mites and other parasites which came over at around the same time, threats that hobbyist beekeepers in those days just couldn’t withstand. Commercial beekeepers took over, and it seemed at the time that the hobby was lost for good. But now, right here in Newton County, it has surged back to life.
Martin attributes the revival to foodies and millennials who recognize the health benefits of local honey. Newton County’s honey is said to have an almost spicy flavor, unique to the area, one factor that makes beekeeping so attractive locally. “Bees can do real well in Newton County,” Martin says. “We make some of the best honey in my opinion.”
For those who don’t want to take up the hobby of beekeeping, there are other ways to help. Martin suggests planting a variety of different seasonal flowers and being cautious about the use of herbicides and insecticides near known beehives. And of course, you can support local beekeepers by buying their honey and spreading the word, so that they may continue to help the community.
Meetings of the Iroquois River Beekeepers are held at Voglund Farm in Kentland on the first Wednesday of every month (the next one is Nov. 6) at 6 PM CST. For directions, contact Dan Voglund at (219) 863-0479.