Illinois Honey

Illinois Honey Farm
Illinois Honey Farm - Credit: Sunny Hill Honey

Illinois honey has been around since the 1820s according to Everett Oertel. Since then, beekeeping grew in popularity in the state. USDA reports show that Illinois produced 429,000 pounds of honey in 2019. The most popular types of honey available in the state are clover and wildflower, primarily made by Italian and Carniolan bees.

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    When Did Illinois Begin Producing Honey?

    Everett Oertel, an apiculturist and author of the book, The History of Beekeeping in the United States, wrote that honey bees were in Illinois around 1820, according to records he had discovered.

    Although it is difficult to find reports or records indicating when Illinois first began producing honey, one of the biggest names in bees – Charles Dadant – began keeping bees in Hamilton, Illinois in 1863, after emigrating to the U.S from France with the intent to grow grapes.

    He could not make much money with grapes, so he switched to bees. By the time the Civil War had ended, Dadant had nine honey bee colonies and travelled across the Mississippi to sell honey and beeswax.

    Today, Dadant & Company is a well-known beekeeping supply company that is in its seventh generation of Dadant leadership, and the company is still headquartered in Hamilton.

    What Are the Main Types of Honey Illinois Produces?

    The most popular varieties of honey coming from Illinois are Clover and Wildflower, but there are also some speciality honeys produced in the state, such as alfalfa honey and goldenrod honey.

    Alfalfa Honey
    Alfalfa honey is one of Illinois state's specialty honey

    How Much Honey Does Illinois Produce?

    Honey bees in Illinois pollinate blueberries, cucumbers, watermelons, and pumpkins. In fact, Illinois produces more pumpkins than any other state in the country. However, honey bees do not pollinate the main crops Illinois produces – corn and soybeans.

    According to the USDA, in 2019 Illinois produced 429,000 pounds of honey sourced from 11,000 colonies.

    One of Illinois’ largest producers Sunny Hill Honey produces anywhere between 80,000 and 120,000 pounds of honey per year, depending on many variables. They use both Carniolan, and Italian bees mostly from breeders in Northern California. 

    Is Illinois Honey Produced Seasonally or All Year Round?

    In Illinois, nectar begins to flow between May and June, and beekeepers usually extract mid-July. There will typically be at least one other harvest before the onset of fall.

    But beekeepers are busy practically year-round. Work begins as early as January when Illinois is typically experiencing a deep-freeze.

    Beekeepers should inspect their hives to see if there is any damage and should cheque to see that the bees have adequate food stores. If not, supplemental feeding with fondant is necessary. In February, it is time to cheque on the bees’ activity.

    If there are dead bees in front of the hive, that is a good sign that the bees inside the hive are healthy and active. They regularly “clean” the hive by ridding it of dead bees. Supplemental feeding should continue, and this is also the time to order packages of bees.

    In March, beekeepers cheque to see that the queen is busy laying eggs. If not, it may be necessary to replace her. If she is productive, the beekeeper should make sure there is enough room in the hive for her brood. Treatment for disease typically takes place at this time, and supplemental feeding should continue if necessary.

    April is the month when the bees start ramping up their activity, so it’s crucial that all equipment is in place since it’s time to add the packaged bees.

    In May, it’s time to cheque for overcrowding, and to take necessary steps to prevent swarming. It’s also when supers should be added for the impending nectar flow. Entrance-reducers should be removed at the time because the bees need space to fly in and out of the hive.

    Adding Bees to Go to California for Almond Pollination
    Adding Bees to Go to California for Almond Pollination - Credit: Sunny Hill Honey

    As June approaches, it is important to make sure there are enough supers in place and that the colony has enough room for activity.

    July is when the first extraction can take place. It is also a hot month in Illinois, so water should be readily available for the bees. The hive should also be properly ventilated. Beekeepers must be on the lookout for honey “robbers” and if they observe it, they can reduce or restrict access to the hive for a few days.

    Beekeepers should also cheque for mites and beetles. By the time August arrives, activity is starting to slow down. Beekeepers can continue to harvest the honey, as the nectar will continue to flow through September.

    September is the last opportunity to extract honey before preparing hives for winter. The bees must have enough honey to survive during the months when they are not actively producing it. Beekeepers should treat for disease at this time and re-queen if necessary. September is also the time to sell the honey!

    October thru December are months when beekeepers should make sure the hives are properly positioned and insulated for brutal weather. The hives should also be mouse-proofed, and beekeepers should watch for skunk activity.

    Entrance reducers should limit the number of pests that invade the hive. Finally, even though it’s going to be really cold outside, hives must be properly ventilated throughout the winter months.

    Are There Any Major Honey Farms or Apiaries in Illinois?

    Most beekeeping in Illinois – almost three-quarters of it – is practiced by hobbyists or smaller, family-run operations. There are only 33 beekeepers in the state who have 100 or more colonies.

    These two larger companies have been around for many years and are still successful today:

    • Sunny Hill Honey – in business since 1948
    • Meyer Bees – hives and local honey production in nine locations within Illinois

     

    And we cannot forget about the Dadant beekeeping supply company, which is infamous in beekeeping circles, and still has a home base in Hamilton, Illinois.

    Honey Bee Extracting Alfalfa Nectar
    Russian hybrids and Saskatraz bees are more and more popular in the state due to their ability to ward off varroa mites

    Which Species of Honey Bee Create Illinois Honey?

    Illinois beekeepers use a variety of honey bees in their hives. The most popular species are Italian (selected because they are gentle and easy to work with) and Carniolan (that adapt well to cold and damp conditions).

    But Russian hybrids and Saskatraz bees are becoming more popular in the state because these bees are thought to be better suited to ward off the invasive varroa mite – a parasite which has caused many bee deaths in recent years.

    Which Native Plants Are Attractive to Honey Bees?

    Honey bees are not native to any U.S. state. They were brought into the country by European settlers in the 1600s. Records indicate that the European honey bee was first spotted in Illinois around 1820.

    The Xerces Society recommends these native plants for bees:

    Smooth penstemon Narrowleaf mountain mint
    Pale purple coneflower Purple prairie clover
    Purple prairie clover Swamp milkweed
    Prairie blazing star Yellow giant hyssop
    Showy goldenrod Wingstem
    Cockspur hawthorn Prairie willow
    Buttonbush Lead plant

    This is based on raw honey, filtered or pasturised honey will break down and diminish these benefits.

    What Sort of Environment Is Needed to Produce Illinois Honey?

    Any discussion about the environment necessary to produce honey should encompass not only the physical environment – land, space, foraging materials, weather – but also the kinds of restrictions that are placed upon local beekeepers by their governing states.

    The Illinois Department of Agriculture lists rules beekeepers must follow or else risk being in violation of the law. Surprisingly, there are no Illinois laws mandating distance between hives and neighbouring properties, but there are several rules about quarantining bees if disease, parasites, or other dangerous pests have invaded hives.

    Illinois beekeepers’ hives must be available for inspection whenever one is requested, and it is those inspections that make up the detailed report that the department presents every year. As of the most current published report – for activity including the period between July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2019 – the Department found that the number of colonies infected with European Foulbrood increased, while Chalkbrood showed declining cases, and American Foulbrood was not detected in any inspected hives.

    Carniolan Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera Carnica) Resting Inside A Parnassia Palustris Blossom
    Carniolan Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera Carnica) resting inside A Parnassia palustris blossom

    As for pests and parasites, the tracheal mite did not show up in any colonies, but varroa mites continue to be a problem. Illinois also saw an increase in the number of small hive beetles.

    These reports help beekeepers to keep informed about the challenges they will face when managing honeybees, and hopefully encourage them to make regular inspections of their own.

    Oddly, the Department does not require pesticide applicators to get in touch with beekeepers before spraying, as is often required in other states. The Department encourages communication between beekeepers and farmers, but that there is not a law in place that seems to endanger Illinois bees since beekeepers will not be warned about spraying and thus will not be able to move their bees away from the harmful substances.

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