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Winter and Other Challenges to Guthrie County’s Beekeeping

Guthrie county, Iowa

Beck O’Brien

The history of beekeeping in Guthrie County dates back to the second half of the 19th century when Iowa’s winter cold and other conditions challenged the practice. In his 1884 essay “Bee Culture,” Thomas Chantry wrote that, “Bees came along with the settlement of this country, and even prior to that time” they were found by the early settlers of Guthrie, “affording them a substitute for the sweets so difficult for the new settlers to obtain.” (It should be noted that it is impossible to tell whether the author of this article is in fact the same Thomas Chantry written about in the article itself, mentioned later here. There were two Thomas Chantry’s in the county at the same time, so the article very well could have been written by one Thomas Chantry about the other.)

In those early beekeeping days, black bees were utilized. However, the black bees proved to be extremely difficult to raise in the town of Thompson. One beekeeper in the area, Jacob Johnson, began hiving a colony of black bees in 1866. Eleven years later, in 1877, Johnson only had three swarms. This is an extremely slow multiplication of swarms, which was likely due to the use of wild bees combined with Iowa’s harsh winters. In these days of beekeeping, swarms often died in the cold.

In 1875, Isaac Stanfield “bought a quantity of hives and ten or fifteen colonies of black bees of someone in Marshall county, and was intending to raise bees on a large scale. The following winter they all died, and Isaac remarked to his father (William), ‘Bees cannot be raised in Iowa;’ how erroneous this was will be seen by the success of those who propagated the Italian bees.”

When introduced to a hive, an Italian queen bee can help increase its population significantly. According to an article published in Italy magazine in 2014, the Italian honey bee is thought to be the world’s most widely distributed honey bee today “due to the prolific egg laying of the queens.” A common technique to increase an existing colony’s size was and is to split an existing hive into two and introduce an Italian queen to one of them.

It was Guthrie County resident Thomas Chantry who learned in 1877 that an Italian queen might be instrumental to successful beekeeping in Iowa. Chantry dedicated himself to learning how to raise a successful hive by reading up on the topic.

“The last week of August [Chantry] found a colony in the top of a high elm tree, by sawing off the limb on which they hung, he secured them and safely wintered them through. These were black bees, but in June of 1877, he visited the apiary of E. Kretchner, and purchased an Italian queen for $3.50; returning home she was introduced in the black colony which increased rapidly now, and soon prepared to swarm; they were divided by artificial means and the queen sold.”

Chantry became known as very successful because he “seldom [lost] a colony in winter.” People looking to get into beekeeping in the county sought him out for advice. “To see the gentlemen and talk with him on this interesting subject makes one feel like going immediately into the business,” the author wrote, “His hives are all neatly painted and arranged in the orchard in a systematic manner; the bees seem friendly and do not attempt to sting one on going about among them.”

Today, Thomas Chantry might be proud to hear that Iowa recently designated a holiday to celebrate honeybees. On February 22, 2018, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed the Iowa Honey Bee Day Proclamation, which made March 14th the official day to celebrate honey bees in Iowa.  

While honeybees are important to celebrate, so too is another species of bee that is facing extinction, the rusty patched bumble bee. So called because of the reddish brown patch on the back of worker and male bees, the rusty patched bumble bee was put on the endangered species list on March 21, 2017. This species’ population is declining for a number of reasons, including habitat loss due to the replacement of flowers and hedges with farmland, disease, pesticides, and increased extreme weather due to temperature and precipitation changes.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates that the rusty patched bumble bee’s population has decreased by 95%. The rusty patched bumble bee used to live in 31 states and some Canadian provinces and is now present in small isolated populations in 12 states and Ontario. Iowa is one of those states. Having the bee on the endangered species list means that it is under increased protection from the USFWS.

Director of the endangered species program at Xerces Society—a group that petitioned to have the rusty patched bumble bee added to the endangered species list—Serina Jepsen, said, “These animals together, not just the rusty patched bumble bee, but the rusty patched bumble bee and all of the other native bees that provide pollination to both wildflowers and natural ecosystems as well as our crops, are incredibly important to functioning ecosystems.” 

Even though the black bees that the settlers of Guthrie County tried harvesting were not very successful at producing honey, wild bees are just as important as honey bees to our ecosystem. In some cases, they can even be more successful than honeybees at pollinating, since they are less susceptible to some of the diseases that affect honeybees, such as Colony Collapse Disorder. Of the approximately 3,500 speices of bees in the U.S., only two percent are honeybees and bumble bees. That means that 98 percent of the species of bees in the U.S. are wild bees. While honeybees are also vital to current agricultural practices, it is the combination of the two together that really helps plants and crops thrive in Iowa.

Sources: SHSI: Thomas Chantry, “Bee Culture” in “History of Guthrie and Adair Counties, Iowa,” Continental Historical Company, Springfield, IL (1884).; on-line: Barry Lillie, “The Italian Honey Bee,” Italy Magazine, September 28, 2014; “Iowa Honey Bee Day Proclamation Signing,” The Buzz: Newsletter of the Iowa Honey Producers Association, April 2018; “Fact Sheet: Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis),” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, March 12, 2018; “Rusty Patched Bumble Bee Officially Listed As Endangered,” Forbes, March 21, 2017; Matt Kelley, “Bumble Bee that once flourished in Iowa goes on endangered species list,” Radio Iowa, January 11, 2017; Mary Sue Alesch and Mark L. Gleason, “Floral Provisioning for Wild Bee Pollinators in Winter Squash and Muskmelon,” Iowa State University (2011); Joel Gardner, “Native Bees, Solitary Bees, and Wild Bees: What Are They?,” Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota, (n.d.); image: eBay.