Beekeeping has been a human activity for thousands of years. The honey bee was one of the earliest animals to be domesticated by humans.

Even so, it took humans until the 1960s to realize they could train a honey bee to stick out its tongue.

“This is very useful,” said Dr. Edward Burkett, a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. “We all think dogs have great noses, but a honey bee’s ability to detect scents using their antennae is 300 times better. They can be trained to stick out their tongue when they detect certain scents.” Trained honey bees are used to detect tuberculosis in areas where testing labs are not available. At UWS, a study is in the works to determine if training honey bees to react to a particular scent can be used to detect breast cancer.

Closeup of a frame from one of the hives at UW-Superior. Note the bee in the center has pollen still stuck to its legs. Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune
Closeup of a frame from one of the hives at UW-Superior. Note the bee in the center has pollen still stuck to its legs. Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune

Honey bees are perhaps more widely known to the general public as master pollinators. From an agricultural perspective, they are crucially important to our economy and health. It is estimated that one-third of every mouthful of food that humans eat is pollinated by honey bees.

The honey bee is undoubtedly an important part of the ecosystem. Unfortunately, the worldwide honey bee population is in a state of dismay. By some estimates, 40-50% of honey bees in the United States have died over the past several years.

Jami Koivisto (from left), Dr. Edward Burkett and Shelly Kinney perform a hive inspection at UW-Superior's apiary in June. Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune
Jami Koivisto (from left), Dr. Edward Burkett and Shelly Kinney perform a hive inspection at UW-Superior's apiary in June. Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune

“We have to reverse this trend through education, research and outreach,” Burkett said. In 2016 he started the Urban Honey Bee Project (UHBP) at UW-Superior. The UHBP serves as an outreach and education initiative, but also encourages UW-Superior undergraduates to engage in research projects that study the honey bee. Some current research projects include studying the use of honey bees to monitor climate change, and determining how pesticides affect a honey bee’s ability to learn and remember.

Jami Koivisto is the current president of the Head of the Lakes Beekeeping Association, a nonprofit community organization that brings new and veteran beekeepers together for education, socialization and problem-solving. Koivisto studied beekeeping under Dr. Burkett while employed at UW-Superior. “Ed (Burkett) wants students to look at beekeeping through the eyes of a scientist,” Koivisto said. Students involved with the hives at UW-Superior learn how to raise honey bees appropriately, with the hopes that they will continue beekeeping beyond their college years.

The apiary at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The yellow chute at the entrance to the hive is part of research project to study pollen and climate change. Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune
The apiary at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The yellow chute at the entrance to the hive is part of research project to study pollen and climate change. Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune

The UHBP wants to encourage beekeeping across the Northland, so extends their community outreach to interested future beekeepers off campus. “We like to see all beekeepers be as knowledgeable as possible,” Burkett said. With this in mind, the UHBP provides free beekeeping workshops aimed at educating people about sustainable methods of beekeeping in and around the Twin Ports area.

The workshops are offered free to the general public, usually in the late winter months. At the Beekeeping 101 course, participants are asked the question: Do I really want to raise honey bees?” The class covers topics such as honey bee biology, hive equipment and protective gear, costs, the legal issues of owning a hive, installing the bees, bee health and colony maintenance.

If participants of Beekeeping 101 find they want to learn more, Beekeeping 102 and 103 go into more depth to prepare people for setting up and maintaining their first hive. Further workshops are offered which focus on advanced issues such as swarm control, honey production and managing the hive over the winter months.

The classes encourage people to study sustainable beekeeping practices for the Northland. Most of the honey bees that are ordered from large suppliers come from southern states. As of now, there are no honeybee suppliers in the upper Midwest.

Dr. Edward Burkett, a biology professor at University of Wisconsin-Superior, performs a hive inspection at the on-campus apiary in June. Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune
Dr. Edward Burkett, a biology professor at University of Wisconsin-Superior, performs a hive inspection at the on-campus apiary in June. Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune

“This is part of the problem with honey bee mortality rates in our area,” Koivisto said. “The most commonly-kept honey bees, such as Italian honey bees and Carniolan honey bees, are not super adept at surviving our winters.” Most hive owners do what they can to help their honey bees to survive, but if their hive dies off, most owners simply order more of the same type of bee the following spring. A more sustainable approach would be to encourage propagation of a “mutt bee,” or a mixed genetic type of honey bee that is naturally more resistant to cold winters, as well as disease and parasites.

“I’ve been raising Russian honey bees in my hive,” Koivisto said. “They are a little more aggressive, but less inbred than the other two types and more likely to survive the winter.” Every time a hive survives the winter, it is able to grow and form new hives, an essential step towards improving honey bee health in the Northland.

The UHBP also provides free services such as hive diagnostics, swarm capture and general consulting for people with questions about their hives. The UHBP truly is on a mission to increase the health of the honeybee in the Northland. “Honeybee health is one of the most important issues today,” said Burkett. “It is worth our time to mentor others who are trying to help.”

If you are interested in attending the next series of beekeeping classes though the Urban Honey Bee Project, contact Dr. Edward Burkett at (715) 394-8253, or eburkett@uwsuper.edu.

The Head of the Lakes Beekeeping Association can be reached through their website: hotlbees.org, or on their Facebook page.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. You can reach her at KMurphyWrites@gmail.com.