The bee’s knees8/2/2017
Backyard bee breeding
Jason Foley’s Des Moines home and the 1.72-acre property it sits on is entirely devoted to his bee breeding business, Foley’s Russian Bees. Foley has been breeding bees for 10 years and was successful enough to leave his desk job of 13 years to grow his bee breeding business. He is now in his fourth year of full-time bee breeding, is a master beekeeper, and well on his way to the elusive title of master craftsman beekeeper. Foley’s interest in bees came from a simple observation.
“Growing up I always saw bees around, and I just didn’t see any in this neighborhood. So I went ahead and got my first hobby hive and started up with that,” he says.
Foley specifically breeds Russian bees, native to Primorsky Krai, Russia, for their survival skills. This particular bee is a product in high demand in the bee business — and Foley will sell an individual queen for $40 each. If all his mating nucs are thriving, he can produce around 500 queen bees a month.
The backyard of his home has approximately 250 mating nucs, equating to 250 colonies. Foley ships queens all over the country, estimating that 90 percent of his business is done outside of Iowa. (The only state he hasn’t shipped to is Hawaii.)
While the state of Iowa may have several thousand beekeepers, Foley notes that Iowa doesn’t have anyone producing bees on a commercial scale, which usually means producing up to 1,200 queens a day. Foley only knows of one other person in the state breeding bees on a similar scale as he is.
Does he yield any honey?
“Because I am a bee breeder, you kind of shoot yourself in the foot for producing honey,” Foley says.
As his hives grow, he will split them off — to create more hives to grow further or sell to the public — which leaves little time for them to produce mass amounts of honey. While his bees do produce some, it is in much smaller quantities. Foley estimates he has close to 200 full-size hives — built in his onsite woodshop — on his property. He also operates about 150 other colonies on farms owned by other people.
Are the bees really dying?
“Nationwide there’s a 30 percent kill of our bees every year, give or take,” he says.
While the figure may seem high, Foley and his fellow beekeepers aren’t alarmed. The hive splitting process helps regain some of those numbers.
Does he get stung a lot?
“Any given day that I’m in a bee yard, I’ll receive several stings. It’s just part of it,” he says.
Foley estimates the most stings he’s ever sustained at one time to be 50. Ironically, Foley is moderately allergic to bees, which is something he didn’t learn until he bought his first hive. Luckily, when he’s more active with his hives in the summer, he does build immunity.
On a scale this large, Foley doesn’t always view the bees as pets, though he does pet them sometimes. He also enjoys the Zen qualities of beekeeping.
“There’s a lot of things to going through the hive and seeing these furry little teddy bears running around on the frames and stuff that lowers your blood pressure and just puts you in a better mood,” he says. “And just the hum in the air is very pleasing.” ♦