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A patchwork of new experiences for Minnesota beekeeper

Lucy, 2, enjoys outdoor time on one of many quilts made by her bee-enthusiast father, Willie Gabbard.

You could say Willie Gabbard’s love of honey bees is in his very fabric. He has even made a quilt that diagrams a hive’s eggs, larvae, brood, honey and pollen cells.

Yet he’s only been keeping bees for three years.

“He is a true beekeeping enthusiast,” says Katie Lee, a University of Minnesota Extension apiculture educator. “He helps people, answers questions on our Facebook page, and he’s joined at least one beekeeper club.”

Extension’s Beekeeping for Northern Climates has been offered since 1993. Participants learn from its founders, Extension Entomologists Marla Spivak and Gary Reuter, and enjoy a new digital class experience developed by Lee and a team of experts.

Willie Gabbard’s bees enjoy the water and wildflowers on his property in Stacy.

“They also share experiences with one another and become somewhat of a community,” says Lee.

There’s a lot to learn, but Gabbard’s five acres in Stacy had the right environment and he had the energy. “A friend told me, ‘If you can keep chickens, you can keep bees,’” says Gabbard. “We had chickens.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy — or for everyone. Minnesota beekeepers have winter survival to consider. Then there are the mites, a major threat to honey bees, along with pesticides and a lack of the flowers bees need to feed on from the time they emerge from hives in early spring.

Katie Lee and colleagues hold beekeeping field days across the state to give participants hands-on experience.

“The first year, I got two hives and one died due to mites. But the surviving hive had a hygienic queen from Marla Spivak’s line,” he says, adding that he has split that hive twice and bought more.

“The course taught me what bees need – and what they don’t need,” he says. “My first advice for anyone even considering keeping bees is to take the class, because most of the questions are answered there.”

Find out more about the online Beekeeping in Northern Climates course from the University of Minnesota Bee Lab.

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