Forest Forage – Bee Keeping
"I've always been a gatherer," says Jim Jirick, an organic farmer with 400 acres of cropland, pasture, woodland, native prairie, and wetland in Kilkenny, Minnesota. "Whether it was mushroom or fish, or hunting—any of that kind of stuff. I've always been a person that wants to go out and gather." Jim and his wife Jackie purchased the land from Jim's family after his grandfather passed away. "It was kinda' my playground growing up," says Jim. The property's biggest selling point for Jim was the 80-acre mature maple-basswood woods. "I wanted the Big Wood. I've always wanted that woods." However, with a family to raise and money being tight, Jim knew that his woods needed to pay for itself.
As part of the solution to his income needs, Jim sought help from some fellow gatherers: honeybees. Jim was familiar with beekeeping from his youth. "My grandfather raised bees when I was a kid," Jim recalls. "I think I was 12 when I first can remember working with bees. I would take honey to school and sell it to teachers." Jim gave up beekeeping once he was old enough to get other jobs, but had the opportunity to pick it up again years later when a retiring beekeeper offered to sell Jim his bees and supplies, and to mentor him. That was about 25 years ago. Today, Jim's bees produce over 1,000 pounds of honey each year, which he sells through various local markets.
Jim keeps some of his hives right next to his woods. There they can feed on the basswood trees during their early summer bloom. "Basswood is one of the premiere honeys out there," says Jim. Nectar from basswood flowers produce a tangy, dark gold honey. According to Jim, the flavor is stronger than the more common sweet clover honey. "It's real good. It's got a good honey flavor to it." The bees may forage on other woodland plants as well such as dogwood, ironwood, willow, and ground-dwelling woodland flowers.
Jim recommends that new beekeepers find a local mentor. "It's a nice network. Everybody kind of helps each other." He also suggests taking a beekeeping class such as the three-day course he took at the University of Minnesota. "I learned what I'd been doing wrong for 30 years with the bees," he chuckles. Jim says he had trouble keeping his bees alive, a problem he and many beekeepers still have today. Modern honeybees are suffering from a variety of problems, including invasive mites, bacterial infections, and pesticide poisoning. "The further you can put your bees from a conventional agricultural field, the better," Jim warns, in reference to the potential use of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides known to kill bees. Fortunately for bees, these problems are receiving more attention lately, leading to more funding and research into solutions. "There's just been a lot more public awareness of what's going on," Jim says.
Jim notes that all the buzz about bees has been good for beekeepers too—the price and demand for honey has increased dramatically in the last few years. "I think there's more people becoming aware of the local honey, versus the honey that's imported from other countries." Jim enjoys eating honey himself, "I eat it when I'm out in the woods caring for the bees. That's the best time, right off the hive too!"