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The buzz about bees

The queen bee (center with yellow paint) is surrounded and attended to by female worker bees. This was only the second time the queen was seen by the staff at Prairie Ecology Bus Center in Lakefield. Brian Korthals/Daily Globe1 / 2
Karess Knudtson, naturalist at the Dickinson County Nature Center in Okoboji, Iowa, stands by an indoor bee exhibit that contains about 10,000 bees. Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe2 / 2

OKOBOJI, Iowa — Next to humans, bees are the second most studied species on Earth, and the research has only expanded in recent years with colony collapse disorder wiping out hives and the discovery that certain pesticides are killing some of our most prolific pollinators.

As researchers across the country — and as close as the University of Minnesota — study the demise of the bees and what can be done to protect them, there has been a growing movement among people wanting to do their own part to save the honeybee.

Pollinators like the honey bee are necessary in food production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one in every three bites of our food comes from products that require pollination from some type of insect.

In southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa, the popularity of honey bees and honey production is on the rise. At the same time, there is also a movement to educate the public about the bees, which often get a bad rap because of their stinging capabilities.

“There is a fear factor and we want to address that,” said Karess Knudtson, naturalist at the Dickinson County Nature Center in Okoboji, Iowa. “This is an animal we need to live symbiotic with. This is a group of animals that we, as humans, rely on. We need to figure out how to live with them harmoniously.”

The Dickinson County Nature Center recently created an indoor beehive exhibit, complete with a queen bee and approximately 10,000 worker bees (females) and drones (males). Only the worker bees have stingers, and part of the educational exhibit is to let people know that a worker bee will only sting if they are threatened. Stinging is an act of last resort for a bee — once their stinger has been used, they die.

The honeybee exhibit was made possible by nature center board member and Milford, Iowa, beekeeper Steve Anderson. He provided bees for both the indoor and outdoor hives and serves as the center’s lead beekeeper.

Rather than start from scratch with a package of bees, Knudtson said their exhibit started with frames full of honey, honeycomb and brood — baby bees in different stages of development.

“We put them in on a Monday morning and they started working,” Knudtson said. “By Monday afternoon, the workers were going out and gathering pollen.”

The indoor exhibit includes a virtual fly-way to the outdoors, which the public can view without concern of being stung. On bright, sunny days, the flyway is buzzing with bees coming back to the hive and others going out to gather pollen.

While honey bees can fly up to three miles away from their hive, the nature center’s roughly 60-acre grounds provides them with some pollen sources, such as plum thickets, crabapple and basswood trees.

“We are augmenting their nectar source with a sugar water concentration, but as more and more nectar sources become available through the growing season, we’ll taper off the feeding,” Knudtson said.

This summer, the nature center will add a new avian courtyard to include native plants and flowers that will also provide good sources of pollen.

“People can help bees out just with what they plant,” said Knudtson. “Bees are very drawn to purple and blue, and there are a lot of annuals out there that are a profusion of those colors.”

In addition to the avian courtyard, Knudtson said the nature center will have an interactive exhibit for children, displays on the life cycle of honey bees and educational materials about the importance of pollinators.

“The display will continue to grow and change,” she said. “There is a ton of information on honey bees — there’s a lot to learn.”

As the educational exhibit grows, so will the bee population. Knudtson anticipates the 10,000 starter bees will expand in population to nearly 60,000 bees in time.

“They all have a purpose — they all have a job and it’s a well-oiled machine,” she said. “I think it’s a neat tool to educate children and adults. It is fascinating for the little ones, all the way up to their grandparents.”

Something Knudtson finds so fascinating about honeybees is their method of communication. The bees use dance moves to direct their fellow bees to pollen sources, including what the source is and how far they must travel.

“Depending on how fast she wiggles, (she may be telling them) there’s a plum thicket and, oriented to the sun, how many miles away it is,” Knudtson said. “It’s pretty phenomenal when you stop and think about what these bees can do.”

The Dickinson County Nature Center, which opened in 2010 and includes a butterfly house and butterfly garden, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. It will be closed on Memorial Day and begin its summer hours of operation on Tuesday. Summer hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays until Labor Day.

The center plans a bee celebration day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 21. The free, family event will include educational speakers, beekeepers, honey tasting and craft activities for the children. The center also offers children’s programming throughout the summer.

PEBC Apiary At the Prairie Ecology Bus Center (PEBC) in Sparks Park on the north side of Lakefield, the Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership is helping to fund a pollinator exhibit to increase awareness of honeybees and other pollinators.

PEBC Director Chrystal Dunker said she has wanted to have an observation hive for years, and with the recently added classroom in the park she now has the space for an exhibit. The apiary began with a single package of bees from California. That package contained approximately 30,000 worker bees and a queen bee.

“It’s a huge experiment for us and for the bees,” Dunker said.

Referring to honeybees as the poster child of pollinators, Dunker hopes the exhibit will educate both children and adults about the importance of all pollinators, from beetles and butterflies to bats and birds.

“It’s a fascinating thing to bring bees indoors and watch them — it’s just a phenomenal way that they operate,” she said. “There’s a lot of fear based on bees, and if there’s fear, a lot of people don’t like bees. This is allowing us to put bees in front of people in a safe place and they can dissolve themselves of their fears. They may be less inclined to swat at a bee when they see it.”

The PEBC’s summer intern, Kelly Fischer, will spend part of her internship working with University of Minnesota researchers on pollinators and bees. The plan is for her to use some of the information she’s learned through research to develop some key messages for the pollinator exhibit, Dunker said.

Meanwhile, much of the programming with the bee exhibit this summer will take place through the Garden Club, a weekly activity for children who just completed second grade through sixth grade.

The Garden Club still has some openings for this summer’s program, with the first two-hour class planned for Tuesday. The weekly class has kids planting and weeding their own garden space in Sparks Park and learning about pollinators and other facets of nature.

Dunker anticipates other programs on pollinators to be offered as early as this fall.

“We encourage anyone who is interested to come out and see them,” she said.

The PEBC is open weekdays and occasional weekends during the summer.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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