Bittersweet Buzz: Dan Van Peursem and father pose with honey bee boxes.

Bittersweet Buzz

Math Chair Dan Van Peursem pursues honey hobby in light of at-risk bees

By Katie Nelson

For some, fishing or reading or knitting fills in the spaces between work and family obligations. For Department of Mathematical Sciences Chair Dan Van Peursem, Ph.D., it’s bees. Specifically, raising bees and harvesting honey from the bee boxes near his Vermillion home.

“I don’t golf, so that’s my free psychotherapy time,” Van Peursem said. “I spend time in the shop building bee boxes or something for my hives.”

The hobby started around a Thanksgiving dinner table years ago, when Van Peursem’s uncle approached him about taking it up. “My uncle said, ‘Hey Dan, I’ve got some old bee boxes left over—would you be interested in keeping some bees again?’” Van Peursem said. “I started getting into it. It’s been at least 10 years now.”

But his curiosity about bees started long before then, when Van Peursem was growing up in Orange City, Iowa.

“My dad raised bees when I was a kid, so that started the initial interest in it,” Van Peursem said. “We helped him extract honey and move the bee hives and check them.”

Since he picked up the hobby, Van Peursem says he has split hives with several friends around Vermillion and USD, including Beacom School of Business Instructor Tom Martin.

“Once you get hooked on it, you really get hooked on it. It’s kind of fun to see different people that I’ve gotten started,” Van Peursem said. “That’s probably been the biggest enjoyment, just to see more folks get fired up about it.”

Aside from removing unwelcome hives from his neighbors’ homes and constructing bee boxes in his garage, Van Peursem enjoys harvesting honey every September from his hives, which he keeps both in his backyard and in a friend’s field a few miles outside Vermillion.

“It’s about two acres and they let me keep them there. So I play farmer and try to grow clover. I get enough honey that I can give a lot away for Christmas presents and to friends and sell whatever I have left over,” he said. “I’m hoping to build up a retirement hobby where I’ll sit at farmers’ markets and things like that.”

Bittersweet Buzz: Dan Van Peursem checking hive boxes  

South Dakota is the third-highest honey producing state in the nation behind North Dakota and Montana, according to the National Honey Board, an agriculture promotion group that advocates for honey’s benefits and uses. In 2014, South Dakota produced more than 14.8 million pounds of honey worth about $30.6 million.

But the sticky-sweet substance that fills Van Peursem’s free time may be headed for extinction. Over the past several years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published findings showing evidence of colony collapse disorder, the technical term for the declining bee populations seen worldwide. While the loss of a popular condiment may be a disappointment, the consequences of colony collapse disorder are much more far-reaching.

“Honeybees are used so much for honey production, but also pollination,” USD entomologist Dan Soluk, Ph.D., said. “Bees are the most important pollinator group.”

While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact cause, Soluk attributes colony collapse disorder primarily to increased disease, fewer bee-friendly habitats and the extensive use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids.

Common in seed coatings, this artificial pesticide is derived from nicotine and builds up in insects’ synapses, meaning even very small amounts can be toxic to bees and other insects that feed on the plants.

“Sometimes inadvertently, we end up killing lots of bees because we’ve applied these pesticides,” Soluk said. “There may be some economic benefits, but we’re reaping the negative side of it.”

Honeybees are far from the only species at risk for extinction, but they are a very noticeable one that is easy to track, since they live in groups. Soluk gave the example of the rusty patched bumblebee, which the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service added to the endangered species list in January.

It is alarming that creatures that were common only a few decades ago are now endangered, Soluk said.

“When the buffalo nearly went extinct, it was a real eye-opener. That’s the power of endangered species. They have the power to alert us,” he said. “It’s always harder for people to see a change in a community or ecosystem.”

Meghann Jarchow, Ph.D., is the sustainability program coordinator at USD. She says that while the declining bee population doesn’t affect many of South Dakota’s core crops, like soybeans and corn, it still poses a concern for the rest of our food.

‘Most of our food comes from plants that are pollinated by insects ... We happen to be in a landscape that doesn’t need them as dramatically, but if you don’t have a landscape that supports pollinators and their numbers decline, we’re not going to be able to grow those things that rely on pollinators.’
—Meghann Jarchow, sustainability program coordinator

Traditionally, bees and other insects have been nature’s pollination team, Jarchow said. But in some parts of China, where the bee decline has been especially prevalent, pollination by hand has become one solution. In other places, including the U.S., transporting bees from state to state for the purpose of pollination is standard practice.

“If we were more supportive of our native bee populations, we wouldn’t have to pay to use honeybees for pollination,” Jarchow said. “You don’t want to get to the place where people have to do it.”

Part of the honey boom in South Dakota is due to its landscape, which has remained largely rural even as other parts of the country have become more and more urbanized. But even so, 99 percent of tallgrass prairie in North America has been removed since Europeans settled here, Jarchow said, and it is becoming tougher for bees as our agricultural systems intensify and the prairie they once called home continues to shrink.

Soluk also pointed out the danger of giving bees fewer feeding options. Since flowers bloom at different times of year, bees need a variety of species to keep them fed year-round. Some farmers satiate that need by shipping bees around the country to places like California, where the almond plants need plenty of pollinators.

But all that moving can stress bees and even contribute to the spread of disease, Soluk said. Places like western Minnesota and other areas around South Dakota are often characterized as “corn deserts,” meaning they primarily house cornfields and lack sources of nutrition for bees.

“As we make these landscapes more and more uniform, we lose the diversity of sources of nectar,” Soluk said.

To tackle the problem, responsibility primarily lies with farmers and ranchers because agriculture is the dominant land use in the state, Jarchow said, rather than with hobbyists like Van Peursem.

“There are ways to slightly tweak our agricultural systems to make them much more supportive of pollinators,” she said, suggesting that adding plants like red clover to the crop rotation would hold the soil in place while providing food for bees. In addition, she suggested incentivizing farmers to diversify their crops in a way that is beneficial to bees and other insects.

Van Peursem says while his hives pollinate many Vermillion gardens, his small collection of hives is unlikely to make any major impact on the crisis.

“I don’t think I’m going to make a difference in the global population,” he said, laughing. “It’s your commercial guys who are keeping the pollination of all the food going.”

While casual beekeepers and backyard gardeners may not be able to completely eradicate the bee population problem, Jarchow says there are small steps we can all take that can make a big difference.

“One thing all of us can do is allow more diversity in our yards,” she said. “Allowing dandelions, allowing clover in your yard, doing landscaping with nectar producing plants—bees love it.”Bittersweet Buzz: Dan Van Peursem and father removing honey during the harvest

Soluk pointed out that small tasks, like planting wildflowers or not using pesticides unless necessary, can help.

“People can make a huge difference. It may not be the thing that saves the world, but if everybody does, then it does save the world,” he said. “There’s a lot of diversity of habitat potential in a town like Vermillion.”

Besides abstaining from pesticides and creating more diverse gardens, Soluk suggested that a culture shift is in order to help save bees.

“You can stop worrying about having the odd weed in your lawn. Don’t use lawn services that treat everything. Don’t be so fixated on having the yard where everything is just so,” he said. “A little bit of wildness in your yard equals a yard that is a little friendlier to insects and especially pollinators.”

Since he began keeping bees, Van Peursem says his attitude toward having a “perfect” lawn has changed. “You find yourself doing things differently. I told my wife I’d try to keep the front lawn green for her where other people can see, but my backyard goes to clover,” he said. “Somebody came up with the decision that lawns all have to be nice pretty green grass, but it’s not very good for bees.”

Van Peursem currently has 13 colonies of bees, a number that varies from year to year.

“I started this spring with three and I bought three new boxes, a friend of mine gave me a swarm and I split a couple hives off,” he said. “The swarms can be as big as a basketball.”

Van Peursem will usually devote about two hours each week to his colonies, depending on the season. He typically observes them when he returns home for lunch each day.

“Before I go in for lunch I’ll check the bees, see how they’re doing, just watch them going in and out, see if they’re bringing in pollen or nectar that day,” he said. “Over Christmas break we’ll have a nice fun day where dads and grandpas come to the shop and build bee boxes. It’s not terribly time-consuming.”

All that bee observation means a lot of risk for stinging, which he says happens about five or six times a year.

“I put on the full armor with a veil and suit and gloves and I still get stung,” he said.

Bittersweet Buzz: Dan Van Peursem with hive boxes

Van Peursem’s honey hobby suffered a minor setback earlier this year when a rogue crop-duster wiped out several of his hives. While disappointed by the loss, he sees it as an opportunity to combine his love for beekeeping with his career passion – math.

“Part of my role as chair of the math department is teaching and research, so I thought, ‘Oh, I need to find a new research problem to work on,’” he said. “I’ve already had some ideas. How many bees can you afford to lose before the hive will die off?” he said. “It’s a numbers game.”

Van Peursem says he is no expert on hive longevity, but is interested in modeling the phenomenon for a future research project.

“I’m an applied mathematician and I do math modeling, so that would be cool to derive a math model to mimic how the hive would react,” he said. “If you lose all your foragers, would the hive collapse? It’d be interesting to prove it mathematically that that actually matches with real life and find those equations that govern it.”

Despite his passion for bees and living in a sweet spot for honey producers, Van Peursem readily admits that he’s unlikely to quit his day job and take up beekeeping full time. For now, he thinks of it as a relaxing pastime.

“I’m just a hobbyist trying to learn this stuff,” he said. “The thought process is always, ‘Hey, I could make some money from this,’ but it’s a hobby that you’re throwing money into instead of getting money out of.

“If that’s your reason for getting into it, you might want to think of a different hobby.”