Beekeeping may seem uncomplicated and static, but with changing seasons, diseases, and agricultural trends, there’s always something new. Paul Wikerd, 97, has been beekeeping since he was 15 and along with Rodale Institute, he’s still learning. Wikerd recently purchased two colonies from Rodale Insitute through Michael Schmaeling, Rodale Institute’s resident beekeeper, and now the unlikely pair hopes to collaborate on apiary research.
About three years ago, Wikerd had connected with Rodale Institute as a place to have his birthday party. When it was mentioned that he had a past with beekeeping bees the two were introduced. Ever since then he’s been coming to Rodale Institute to check up on Rodale Institute’s operation and seeing how the bees were. “I’d take him to the honey bee conservancy and tell him how the colonies were doing and we’d compare and exchange notes and what we were both working on," Schmaeling explains.
“He came in winter asking if I could provide some bees this season. We were using them to sustain our apiary so we could replenish our bees. He doesn’t want them for honey, it’s just a passion. He’s interested in working with the bees and watching them grow."
Growing up on a 30 acres farm in Lancaster, Wikerd’s grandfather was a beekeeper, so it came naturally. His curiosity of bees came while trying to get a swarm out of a tree “The kid’s job was to catch swarms,” Wikerd, who caught his first swarm at age 12 explains, “catching wild bee swarms is more fun to me than deer hunting. It’s a special thrill."
After over 80 years of beekeeping knowledge, Wikerd describes that, “agriculture has become a monoculture. There used to be beekeepers all over the country on every farm. Look around you, what do you see? Everybody is growing corn and soybeans.” This, along with many other factors including mites and pesticide use are contributing to a decline in bee populations called colony collapse disorder. “Bees like a diverse forage. If you eat the same thing every day, you’re not going to be as healthy with a diverse diet," Schmaeling adds.
The two hope to cultivate and hybridize a bee that can resist mites and survive the cold weather. According to Wikerd, Russian varieties seem to be holding up the best against colony collapse disorder. “African bees tend to be resistant as well, but then might not be as resistant to other things.” From his perspective, colony collapse disorder is likely due to mites that came around the 1980’s. These mites can harm the bees and also carry dangerous viruses. This, along with pesticide and chemical use, has affected some colonies by as much as 60-70%. “Colonies can survive with 20-30% loss and easily recover by spreading the colony into two hives and building it back up, but anything more than that is not economical,” says Wikerd.
Rodale Institute operates beekeeping under natural selection. "If a colony isn’t doing well, but there’s another colony that’s been healthy and successful for years, let the good colony prevail," says Schmaeling. The hope is to be able to do more research on creating a bee that will be resilient against the factors contributing to colony collapse disorder and spread the knowledge and resources to current and future beekeepers.
Wikerd’s colonies will be pollinating The Boiron Medicinal Garden at Rodale Institute, which started in June of 2015, growing medicinal herbs for homeopathic medicines.