Unsung heroes: Beekeeper praises smallest farmworkers
CLINTON—Come visit with Liz Vaenoski in her honey house, where she brings in the sweet harvest of summer.
She will show you the stainless steel machine that scrapes the bee's wax from the outside of honey-filled frames and the extractor that spins out the dripping goodness.
The rural Clinton woman also will tell you what other beekeepers and scientists have warned for years: The bees are in trouble.
“We have to take it seriously when the bees are dying,” she said. “Every third bite we eat is courtesy of the honeybee.”
Bees pollinate the majority of our crops. But their numbers have been declining in the United States for about a decade.
Scientists think a combination of things are making nature's smallest farmworker sick, including pesticides, invasive parasitic mites and inadequate food supplies.
This year, Vaenoski suspects she lost two hives to colony collapse disorder, the name given when no adult bees or dead bees are found in a previously healthy colony.
“You would think there would be debris or evidence that the bees were in the hive,” she said. “But there was nothing in either hive.”
For a lifetime, Vaenoski has “lived bees,” as she describes her passion. She refers to her beekeeping as “this wonderful world I live in.”
“When I start talking bees, you can't shut me up,” she said, laughing.
Most of her 125 hives are in Green County, where farmers still pasture cows and raise hay that blooms before it is cut.
She started bringing in her clover honey earlier this month and, so far, is pleased with the amount of the harvest.
Last year, she brought in 17 drums at 680 pounds a drum.
Vaenoski sells the honey at her farm, where mowing is kept to a minimum and plants are allowed to bloom. No advertising. Just word of mouth. She cares less about making money and more about creating awareness.
When Vaenoski married her late husband, John, the couple had 1,400 hives. But long before she met John, she worked with bees alongside her aunt and uncle.
“My uncle told me I couldn't be his partner because beekeeping is not work for a woman,” she said.
Vaenoski followed her heart.
She has kept and cherished bees, even though the work is intense and timely.
In winter, she puts together frames and repairs bee boxes. This spring, she ordered 60 packages, with about 8,000 bees in each, from California.
She shook the bees into hives that needed replenishing after winter kill.
“You don't play around,” she explained. “If you have good rhythm, you can shake a package in two minutes.”
Each package came with a queen. The queen lays 1,400 eggs per day while sterile female or worker bees bring home nectar or pollen.
According to one estimate, the industrious honeybee workers make 10 million foraging trips to gather enough nectar to make a pound of honey.
Vaenoski belongs to Rock County Beekeepers, Wisconsin Honey Producers and American Beekeeping Federation. She also is an honorary member of California beekeepers.
In addition, Vaenoski teaches new beekeepers and supports honeybee research. For 30 years, she has made and donated intricate beeswax sculptures, which are auctioned through various beekeeping groups to raise money for research and legislation.
Earlier this month, Vaenoski attended groundbreaking for the new Bee and Pollinator Research Lab at the University of Minnesota. Research from the lab has improved genetic diversity among bees, reduced pesticide use and improved bee conservation programs.
Vaenoski loves bees so much that she keeps an observation hive in her home so she can watch them come and go.
“I cannot imagine my life without bees,” Vaenoski said. “When I see bees in the field, it makes me happy because I know they are doing their job.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email [email protected].