Keep calm and keep bees

By Sarah Gardner

Kenny Fisher’s name still appears on the staff schedule on a whiteboard at the United States Department of Agriculture service center in Murphysboro, though “permanent vacation” is written next to it.

Fisher retired in June 2013 after working at the USDA for 10 years, but still works in conservation as a local beekeeper. For the last six years Fisher has been keeping hives and collecting honey, learning more about bees each year.


“We started noticing years ago the bees were having problems, and we thought it would be a good idea to get into beekeeping,” said Fisher, who graduated from SIU in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in Forestry. “Because if bees are going to be saving the United States they need to be saved with small beekeepers.”

National trends show the population of honeybees is declining and fewer people are beekeeping. There are only half as many managed bee colonies in the U.S. as there were in the 1940s, dropping from about 5 million to 2.5 million, according to the USDA. A contributing factor is a condition called Colony Collapse Disorder, in which a very low number of adult bees are present in the hive, while a queen and immature bees are still there. CCD threatens the health of the bee population and economic stability of agriculture that relies on bees for pollination.

One-third of the food produced in North America depends on honeybees for pollination, meaning the U.S. and other countries could be dependent on the bees’ survival. Agriculture production in the U.S. relies on having a healthy population of bees, said USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release June 20. This summer the USDA provided five Midwest states with $8 million for honeybee habitats, and President Obama directed government agents to take action to protect and restore populations of pollinators, which include honeybees.

The 2013 to 2014 winter was especially harsh Southern Illinois beekeepers had about 60 percent survival this winter. Northern Illinois lost 70 to 80 percent of their bees.

Fisher maintains 10 hives on his own and neighbors’ property. Fisher and his wife Phyllis, a retired Vergennes postmaster, run a business called Arrowhead Apiary. The name comes from the subdivision in Carbondale the Fishers live in—Arrowhead—and “apiary” refers to a place where bees are kept.

They harvest honey for themselves and to sell at the Carbondale Farmer’s Market. In their first year, the Fishers sold 350 pounds of honey at their four appearances at the market.

The Fishers sell their honey in 12 fluid ounce glass jars, plastic bottles and 2 fluid ounce bear-shaped containers, all with labels made by a neighbor. Their honey is filtered but not heated, and packaged in sealed bottles and jars.


“It has a professional look to it and I think people appreciate that,” Phyllis said.

Phyllis said she considers herself the marketing person of their business. She goes through a checklist of all the materials they take to the market and once they arrive, she puts out the tablecloth and decorations.

“[I] bring out the points that people want to hear about,” Phyllis said. “It is local honey, and that’s a selling point because people ask about that almost constantly while you’re at the farmer’s market.”

Kenny and Phyllis said they have had a good season with the market, and great reception from the community.

“We have approximately five bottles left and that’s all for our season this year,” Phyllis said. “Because you have to save enough honey in the hives for the bees to last through the winter.”

Kenny said he enjoys the atmosphere and the social aspect of the market.

“I like to talk to people. I’d go even if I didn’t have honey probably.”

For Kenny, who is a member of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association, his passion for beekeeping is less about the business and more about saving the bees.

S.I. All-A-Buzz Apiary Enthusiasts Club, a group of local bee enthusiasts said there are 2,500 registered beekeepers in Illinois, and hold Beekeeping 101 classes a few times each year to teach those interested how to start a hive. Fisher volunteers and said about 20 to 30 people come each time.

“It’s just fun talking to people about that,” he said.

The group uses Facebook to communicate about events and even let other beekeepers know about swarms of bees, or if a beekeeper has an extra queen. Swarming occurs when about half the bees leave their hive, and rest at a neutral location until a suitable location for a new hive can be found.

“They have a lot better chance to survive when you keep them in a box rather than if they were just in a hollow tree or wherever they were going to go,” Kenny said.

Local farmer Rick Saupe called the USDA service center after spotting a swarm of bees on a soybean plant in his field in Murphysboro on Sept. 9. Kenny captured the swarm to make his 10th hive.

“It’s fairly easy to catch them if you know where they are. Normally if you get most of them in the box … they’ll march in there like an army if the queen is in there.” Once a swarm is caught, Kenny said they have a 60 to 70 percent chance of survival rather than a 15 to 20 percent chance in the wild. Now he feeds the new hive a sugar water mixture, and expects it to survive the winter.

The Fishers are hoping to have an even more successful year with their bees next year. They hope to take double the amount of honey to the Farmer’s Market next year than they did this year.

Until then, you can find Kenny keeping calm, and keeping his bees.