Annette van de Kamp-Wright
Editor, Jewish Press
Walking onto Jodi and Mike Levine’s acreage is like a mini-vacation. For the visitor, that is, because one can only imagine the amount of work it takes. Mike, originally from Louisville, Kentucky, grew up in Columbus, Ohio. Work brought him and Jodi (from Frankenmuth, Michigan) to Nebraska, where seven years ago they purchased their property, a mere 20-minute drive from the Jewish Community Center but at the same time, a world away.
Mike has a Master’s Degree in Agriculture, spent his career in the food- and drink business and, like Jodi, always wanted an acreage. He still works full-time, so there is little time off; but it is worth it.
“We have three geese and 21 ducks,” Jodi said. “We sell the eggs, especially to people who are allergic to chicken eggs and they are great for pest control! They eat Japanese beetles, among other things.”
There is a stream on the property they use to swim and a pond, but none of the fowl go near it. The geese make good watchdogs, Jodi said.
“We had to read up on ducks,” she added, “and how to take care of them, but they are much better suited to the landscape.”
There were a few surprises when they bought the property, such as the still that was located underneath the chicken coop. There is also a barn on the property that was built in the 1920s— with room for barn dances. If you stand on the second floor, it’s easy to imagine the place filled with neighbors dancing the night away. In fact, the piano is still there, its ivories yellowed with age. These days, it’s mostly the bats and raccoons that frequent the place late at night.
“When we bought this farm, it was a pumpkin patch,” Jodi said. “The barn was the haunted house. But I had several neighbors tell me they remembered how, way back when, they came here for barn dances.”
“We farm in compliance with organic guidelines,” Mike said, “from raspberries to garlic, asparagus, fennel and potatoes. As a matter of fact, the first potatoes I ever grew were Dutch potatoes, named ‘Bintjes.’ Our goal is to enjoy our life outdoors and make a living once I retire. More and more people want locally-produced food.”
During the summer, Jodi and Mike grow their vegetables mostly for their own consumption, although they do deliver to certain restaurants in the area. Ted and Wally’s as well as Coneflower Creamery use ‘Fruit of Levine’ raspberries. Then there are the bees, the reason I originally reached out to them—not knowing there is so much more to what they produce.
“I had my first hive in 1979,” Mike said. “I began to learn about bees in college. They are such interesting animals and, of course, they are important pollinators. As a species, they are under attack, something more and more people are aware of. Approximately 40 percent of commercial hives have disappeared. Pesticides are a problem, especially the ones used during soybean production and in cornfields, of which we have many in the Midwest. Their habitats are shrinking everywhere. There are also pests, like the Varroa mites, a former unknown Eurasian species that somehow was introduced here and spreads disease among the bees. On top of that, many chemicals that have already been banned in Europe are still allowed in America. Still, farmers have no choice but to use chemicals to survive economically; so we’re in a tough spot.”
A side note: those Varroa Mites are also known as ‘Varroa Destructors,’ that attack and feed on honeybees and, to top it off, they spread a disease called Varroosis. They can only reproduce in a honeybee colony, attach themselves to the body of a bee and weaken the bee by sucking fat bodies. Yikes.
Mike gets regular calls when people find a swarm in the wild.
“It’s not so common anymore to simply exterminate a hive; most people are aware there are different options. Even pest control companies will call people like me to come pick up a wild hive rather than getting rid of them. However, during a normal year I get on average of eight calls; this year, it’s happened only three times. There are just fewer swarms around.” A wild swarm, he says, usually holds anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 bees.
EarthDayNetwork.com states: “For much of the past ten years, beekeepers, primarily in the United States and Europe, have been reporting annual hive losses of 30 percent or higher, substantially more than is considered normal or sustainable. In fact, one in four wild bee species in the U.S. is at risk of extinction. Worldwide bee populations are in decline, including the honey bee and many of our wild native bees. One example: The yellow-banded bumble bee was the most abundant bumble bee in northern Wisconsin in the mid-1990s. Then, within ten years, it made up less than one percent of the state’s bumble bee population. In Oregon, Franklin’s bumblebee has likely gone extinct during the same period.”
“While we do see a loss of habitat due to development, Nebraska is still a popular state for bees,” Mike said.
That’s a good thing, as bees are indispensable pollinators of most ecosystems. There are 369,000 flowering plant species and 90 percent of them are dependent on insect pollination. A honeybee can usually visit 50-1,000 flowers in one trip; if one bee takes ten trips a day, a colony with 25,000 forager bees can pollinate 250 million flowers in a day. Just think of that number for a second.
They are what is called a ‘keystone species.’ That means other species depend on them for survival, since so many food sources depend on the bees for pollination. Were the bees to disappear, a domino effect would be unavoidable, no matter how smart our scientists are. Besides the food source, pollination is essential to maintain habitats for many different animals, including birds and insects. Remember: bees don’t just visit flowers. They pollinate trees in the spring, too.
If none of that is convincing enough, global crop production pollinated by bees is valued at $577 billion. Pollinators contribute $24 billion to the U.S. agriculture industry, making up a third of the food consumed by Americans.
In February of 2019, HR 1337, the Saving America’s Pollinators Act was introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish a Pollinator Protection Board to develop an independent review process for pesticides that pose a threat to pollinators and their habitats. In addition, the bill “requires the EPA to cancel the registrations of any pesticides containing imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, dinotefuran, acetamiprid, sulfoxaflor, flupyradifurone, or fipronil until the board has made a determination that such insecticide will not cause unreasonable adverse effects on pollinators based on findings that include results of studies of neonicotinoids and the effects of residues, repeated applications, and multiple chemical exposures.
Under the bill, the EPA shall not issue any new registrations for any seed treatment, soil application, and foliar treatment on bee-attractive plants, trees, and cereals until the board has made determinations on such insecticides.The bill requires the Department of the Interior, the EPA, and the Department of Agriculture to coordinate monitoring activities and report on the health and population status of native bees and other pollinators.The bill prohibits unregistered uses of pesticides by a federal or state agency to address emergency conditions except (1) to avert significant risk to threatened or endangered species, (2) to quarantine invasive species, or (3) to protect public health. (Source: Congress.gov)
Beekeeping is very labor-intensive. Because bee populations are so delicate, it is difficult for beekeepers to maintain extremely large operations on the same scale as an industrial farm. And forget about automation. There really is nothing about beekeeping that can be turned over to machines.
It’s easy to look at what Jodi and Mike are doing as idyllic, beautiful, a nice respite from busy city-life, and-oh-those-cute-ducks. Truth be told, it’s energizing to visit their farm and it’s a great place to breathe. But when we really think about those bees and what they mean to all of us, this is much, much more than just a hobby.