The impact of the weather on bees and the honey they produce

A family of hobby beekeepers say this year has had ideal conditions for their honey harvest, and they are expecting their biggest ever.

ORION, Illinois – Beekeeping is no easy task, as Kurt and Jennifer Burnham of Burnham Family Farm in Orion, Illinois know well.

The two started beekeeping about ten years ago and have learned a lot about the needs of bees and harvesting honey over the years.

“It was at the time when there was a lot of talk about the collapse of the colony, and I have a strong background in conservation,” Kurt said. “Jen has the same idea and pretty much the same country ethic, we want to be one with the country, in harmony with the country. So we decided this would be something fun to try… Our first year we did great, we got a a whole bunch of honey. And the next year we added a few more, and we failed miserably. And then the third year, we did it again, and we failed miserably.”

After taking a beekeeping course, the Burnhams have had much more success. Now they have seven bee colonies. At this time of year there are 40,000-50,000 bees.

“It can be a little unnerving when you’re there, surrounded by bees and they’re all around you. It’s loud and it can be intense,” Jennifer said. “But at the same time, if you just stop and watch, all the hard work that this colony is doing, with each individual doing their own part, I can just sit there and watch them and be fascinated by them.”

As Kurt pulls the frames out of the cabinets, he searches for the honey that needs to be covered with a wax coating. That’s their signal that it’s at the right moisture level and ready to harvest.

This is the third honey harvest of the year. They will harvest again in the fall, but it will collect a smaller amount of honey.

Jennifer scrapes the beeswax from the frames, revealing the two to four pounds of honey underneath. The beeswax can later be used to make candles.

The frames are then placed in a spinning machine that separates the honey before it is stripped of any remaining wax or bee body parts before bottling.

“We’ve had more honey this year than any other year,” Kurt said. “Each bucket will end up being 40-50 pounds and I bet we’re going to get six or seven buckets. We’re going to get a lot of honey.”

The third crop was one for the record books, producing 385 pounds of honey, or about 32 gallons.

Like all agriculture, the weather plays an important role in honey production.

“I teach about weather and climate, so I think a lot about big patterns out there. In general, I think climate change is causing a lot of irregularities in any kind of agriculture,” Jennifer said. “If it rains too much, or if it rains for a long time, that’s inconvenient because it will wash all the nectar from flowers and it takes a while to replenish that … How early is a spring, like can we see the bees started early so they can get those first dandelions that pop up in the garden?”

“We find that they do much better when it rains once a week or every ten days,” Kurt said.

With varying weather, not every year is the same.

“We just don’t know, so we really need to work with nature rather than against nature in terms of our way of farming,” Jennifer said. “We’ve been lucky enough to have a sort of ideal summer.”

At the end of winter, they never know how many bees will be left. The colonies are just past the peak of the bee population. As fall sets in, the queen will not lay as many eggs as the hive will not carry and feed as many bees during the winter months

“Some years you go in and they’re completely empty,” Kurt said. “Or you go in and you just find a bunch of bees and they’re all just dead, which either means it got too cold and there weren’t enough bees to support the queen, so they all froze to death sooner or later. Especially those winters where there can be a week where it’s -20° all week, that’s very hard for bees.”

The Burnhams will wrap the colonies in black tarpaulin to try to keep the heat in during the winter. They also make sure that the supers are full of honey when they enter the colony and will also place a candy board in it.

The best part of beekeeping for Kurt and Jennifer? Do it with their children.

In addition to the production of honey, bees play an important role in food production. Bees are responsible for helping pollinate about a third of all global food production.

The Burnhams sell their bottled honey at several local retailers, including:

  • Mama B’s Cafe – Coal Valley
  • Orion Family Pharmacy – Orion
  • Pharmacy Alwood – Alpha
  • Excelsior Studio & Galleria – Cambridge
  • Ridgewood Pharmacy – Cambridge
  • pHat Bottom Labs – East Moline

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