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A buzz in Wisconsin
by John Pederson
Issue 5
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After a cup of coffee, sweetened with a spoonful of crystallized honey, Mary Celley, a.k.a. “The Bee Charmer,” emerges from her log home wearing a faded red baseball cap, blue jeans, a tattered brown jacket, small golden specs, and a playful grin. Two eager friends follow close behind her. Jack, a rambunctious young black lab, seems almost as excited as Celley, but even old Winnie, Jack’s 9-year-old mother, has an extra bounce in her step today. It’s time to get to work on the Celley Farm and help is on the way.

“It’s going to be a good day,” Celley announces as she buzzes down the steps on her way to pick up the shipment of 400,000 bees that will sustain her honey crop this season. Beekeeping is more than a business for this Wisconsin native. Celley depends on the honey harvest to fulfill her spiritual, social, as well as monetary needs. She fell under the bee’s spell when she was just four-years-old.

While her siblings feared them as unwelcome picnic guests, she was enchanted by these buzzing beauties. Her fascination with bees eventually developed into an entomology degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a part-time job at the campus bee lab. Today Celley is a fulltime beekeeper with over 100 hives. “I feel like I’m doing what I was put here to do,” she says.

Celley is not the only Wisconsinite stung with affection for the honey bee. According to Annette Phibbs, the head of the apiary program for the State Department of Agriculture, the state honey industry is composed of thousands of hobby beekeepers, in addition to 50 or so commercial operations. However, the growing problem of mites and the increasing use of pesticides threaten this waning industry. Celley estimates she lost almost 90 percent of her colony to predators such as the verroa mite last winter.

According to Phibbs, the verroa mite is now resistant to what had been beekeeper’s most reliable defenses, Apistan and Checkmite. New treatments cost considerably more than these traditional pesticides, forcing many keepers to hang up their head nets, says Phibbs.
These threats also increase local keepers’ reliance on out-of-state bee suppliers to keep the industry and art of beekeeping alive in Wisconsin.

Wayne Harrsison is one of the state’s main providers. He usually does not sleep during the 36-hour trip to Wisconsin from his farm in Los Banos, Cal. For some reason he just can’t relax with 112 million bees following his truck. It is not until his $500,000 shipment of buzzing cargo is safely unloaded at Darant and Sons Inc., a bee supply store in Watertown, WI, that Harrison breaths easy. With a look of exhausted satisfaction, he unwraps a Swisher Sweet cigar knowing he did his part to sustain Wisconsin’s honey industry for one more year.

When Celley arrives at Darant and Sons Inc. at 8 a.m., Harrison is already enjoying the last drag of his Swisher Sweet while his crew unloads the last of the bee boxes, each containing roughly 7,000 female worker bees. Queens come packaged separately in private matchbox-sized containers. “The queen is the hive,” Celley explains holding the box in her palm. “The colony grooms her and feeds her the royal jelly.” It is this “royal jelly” that maintains her growth and reproductive capabilities, plus distinguishes her from the other females in the hive. After double-checking her order, Celley joins the other keepers inspecting this year’s shipment and sharing stories of ruthless mites and empty hives.

The annual pickup has become a ritual among most Wisconsin beekeepers needing to replenish their colonies from the ravages of winter and the verroa mites, but Wisconsin beekeepers have not always depended on outside help. According to The History of Wisconsin’s Bee Keeping and Honey Production Industry, a pamphlet published by the UW-Madison Historical Society, Wisconsin’s first settlers found abundant supplies of honey in the wild.

The pamphlet states that, “Hunting ‘bee trees’ and removing honey was a well established practice.” Settlers began documenting the locations of these trees, and by 1967, the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters published a collection of known “bee trees” across the state. Today, honey hunting requires less work and more money. Keepers find over 112 million bees for hire under one roof at Darant and Sons Inc., at the cost of $82 per box.

Celley cuts a check for $4,700 and loads 57 boxes of Californian bees in the back of a covered truck, especially arranged for this unseasonably cold April morning. Less experienced keepers risk exposing their cargo to freezing winds on flatbed trucks.
But Celley takes no chances. Much of her income, as well as personal relationships depend on these shipments.

You can find her at the Dane County Farmers Market every week selling her honey for $3-$7 a bottle. Many of her customers enjoy the light clove variety, but Celley prefers the rich taste of her black locus honey, which she refers to as the “champagne of honey.” The farmers market also provides the chance to check in with fellow farmers, longtime customers and friends. It’s easy to see why the annual delivery is a significant, almost sacred, affair.

On her way back from Darant and Sons Inc., Celley receives a call on her cell phone.
“Is this the bee charmer?” says the voice on other line. “Sure is,” she replies. Celley is on call 24-hours-a-day for her “Bee Control” business, managing unwanted bees, hornets, and other stinging insects, for area residents. She chose the name because most people think anything that stings is a bee. She doesn’t particularly enjoy exterminating unwanted bees, hornets and wasps, but it provides a second income and gives her a chance to educate people about the differences between stinging insects. “Honey bees get a bad wrap from more aggressive hornets,” Celley explains.

A few minutes after receiving the call, she arrives back at the farm with $4,700 worth of bees in tow. From her porch you can see small white boxes scattered against the backdrop of an overgrown apple orchard. The hives look somewhat out of place nestled in the tall grass, like ancient monuments waiting to be discovered. A huge bur oak towers over the empty boxes, a lonely old landlord silently looking forward to some company. A fortune teller once told Celly that this particular oak possesses supernatural energy. The teller believed that the tree is home to the Greek god of Nature, Pan.

Celley was so impressed by the mystic’s perfect physical description of a tree she had never seen before that she looked up Pan in the dictionary upon returning home. She discovered that Pan is the protector of honey and moved her hives underneath the old bur oak’s sprawling branches to take advantage of the deity’s watchful presence, which she often feels while harvesting honey and checking her hives.

Celley is in her element under the bur oak’s protective branches. She spends the remaining eight hours of daylight in the tall grass, resettling bees into their new homes. “These bees will literally work themselves to death in a few weeks,” she says while pouring 7,000 buzzing honey bees into a hive. She might do the same if she had more bees of which to take care. She says the work is therapeutic and it’s easy to see why. The Californian honey bees flow out of the box like an oozing stream of honey, their buzz sounding more like a purr on this cool morning.

“This is my sanctuary,” she explains through her beekeeper’s veil. This form of relaxation includes an acupuncture treatment of sorts. Celley receives ten stings throughout the day, which she announces in a calm and affirming tone, “There’s one!” she says, never wincing or breaking stride. On a warmer day she would spray the cages with sugar water to subdue the rambunctious bees after their long journey. Today however, the shock of a 40 degree April morning is enough to tame this Californian crowd.

Although spiritually fulfilling, the work still takes a toll on the 50-year-old “Bee Charmer.” By the time she goes to bed, she can barely move, but you won’t hear her complain. With a weary smile she gently pours the last box of bees into their new home and whispers, “I told you it would be a good day.”

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Mohamad2012-05-22 03:02:02

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