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Residents learn beekeeping basics at Extension class

To bee or not to bee was the question for a group of people who took a beekeeping class at the Sanders County Fairgrounds pavilion Saturday morning.

Thirty-nine people showed up to listen to Rick Molenda pass on information about the caring of honey bees. The near three-hour class was sponsored by the Montana State University Sanders County Extension Office in Thompson Falls. The class was $10 a person, which went to pay for the rental of the pavilion. Attendees ranged from people thinking about starting the hobby to experienced beekeepers, such as Thompson Falls resident Bob Day, who’s been doing it for nine years. There were participants on hand from Noxon, Plains, Paradise, Thompson Falls and Alberton. 

The class kicked off with Plains resident Wendy Carr, the extension agent who coordinated the event, telling the crowd of an experience last year when she helped her beekeeping father capture a swarm of bees high in a tree in Hot Springs. Carr has been with Sanders County Extension Office since January and is in charge of agriculture, horticulture and natural resources. 

The 60-year-old Molenda told the crowd that bees are responsible for much of people’s foods. “Of every three bites of food we consume, 1.5 of those bites can be linked directly to pollinating insects, of which 95% are honey bees,” said Molenda, who has been a beekeeper for 40 years and presently has some 60,000 bees. Each year, he travels to California to get around 600 bee packages for Western Bee Supply. He said that each package has a queen and about 15,000 bees. At the time of his class, he had 100 packages left. He also had several handouts and his 75-page beekeeping supply catalog on hand.

Molenda showed the group some of the gear needed to start a hive. He talked about the role of the queen, drones and worker bees. He went through each month of care for the bees, pointing out the times when a person just leaves the hives alone because they’re dormant, times when bees require a little attention, and the critical months — May, September and October — when keepers should pay close attention to the hives. Molenda keeps detailed records of his hive inspections. He’s had to replace dead queens and even kill a queen when the hive ends up with two. He said it is work to keep a healthy colony. Besides feeding the bees, preventing mites, foulbrood and other diseases, keeping them safe from predators, which is mostly hornets, wasps and yellow jackets, he said a keeper has to make sure the bees have enough space, so they don’t leave. A colony has to periodically be “re-queened” if the present queen dies or is not laying eggs. 

Even with precautions, he said sometimes he loses a number of bees. “I don’t like losing hives and always try to figure out what caused the loss,” said Molenda, who added that sometimes it’s apparent, sometimes it’s not. “I do like getting out in the bee yard and see how they are doing,” he added. Molenda also noted that it isn’t just honey that makes bees useful. They produce beeswax, royal jelly, propolis and venom, all of which are collected and used by people for various nutritional and medicinal purposes.

“But the greatest importance of honey bees to agriculture isn’t a product of the hive at all, it’s their work as crop pollinators,” he said. “This agricultural benefit of honey bees is estimated to be between 10 and 20 times the total value of honey and beeswax. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, bee pollination accounts for about $15 billion in added crop value,” he said, adding that pollination is vital to about 250,000 types of flowering plants that depend on the transfer of pollen from flower anther to stigma to reproduce.

Several people at the class were thinking about getting into beekeeping after the class. Plains Mayor Dan Rowan was present and decided to order a $165 packet of bees from Molenda, president of Western Bee Supply of Polson for the last 20 years. “I am venturing into hobby beekeeping because I like honey,” said Rowan. “Also, I have read that the number of bees has declined sharply in recent years. In a small way my efforts will contribute to increasing the overall bee population,” he added. Former commissioner Carol Brooker and her husband, Tim, were present, but are not sure yet whether or not they’ll get bees, and said they were possibly looking at learning something new, but she gave kudos to the Extension Office for offering the class.

Nine-year-old John McNamara of Plains was the only 4-H member at the class. The South Side Sparks 4-H’er had planned to start with four hives, but his father, Bruce Beckstead, won a basic kit valued at $150 in one of two drawings at the end of the class. Alberton resident Anita Graf won the other one. Carr believes McNamara might be the only 4-H member in Sanders County to have a honey bee project.

“It was a good turnout,” said Carr. Day, who has 20 bee colonies, said the presentation was interesting and had a lot of good information. Carr said the extension office is also planning a “Bee Keeping Meet & Greet” at Minnie’s Cafe on Saturday, April 2, at 11 a.m.


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