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Student’s beekeeping project creates buzz
A sweet deal

Student’s beekeeping project creates buzz

MCCOOL JUNCTION—Madison Gerken and her mother, Sue, pry open the family’s boxy beehives without fanfare, dressed in full head-to-toe beekeeper regalia.

What started as Madison’s FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) has turned from project to passion. Supervised Agricultural Experience projects like Madison’s beekeeping endeavors are meant to immerse students in a year-long project that enhances the participant’s knowledge of all aspects of the ag industry. Madison’s SAE has stuck around much longer, and her family is now included.

Madison acquired her first bees in 2017. Local beekeeper and farmer Roger Bailey helped her get started, and has guided the Gerken’s along the way. “He continues to check up on us now and then,” Madison said. Bailey has been a valuable resource in helping her establish her unique FFA project.

“We still learn as we go,” Madison said. The bees do some learning, too. “Two years ago we had to move our hives. A lot of them got confused, and it took quite a while for them to adjust,” she said. The flying, stinging insects can be very perceptive. “They can sense your emotions. If you just keep calm with them they usually don’t mind you being around.” While Madison keeps her cool, sometimes her father, Steve, gets in a rush, she said. “I’ve only been stung around five times. My mom and dad have had a lot more than that – more than they can count.”

Besides their sense of when threatened, Madison said bees also do a bit of measuring when they construct their honeycombs, lining up to figure out how far their beeswax needs to reach. “They’re actually very smart creatures,” Madison said.

Maintaining her hives is more than harvesting honey and keeping the swarms together. Treated strips are slid between the frames in an effort to ward off mites, which wreak havoc on bees’ health. Late summer is the ideal time to treat for these parasites, which spread diseases that – among other damage – can cause deformed wings and pupae cannibalization.

So far the Gerken’s have avoided such devastation. Still, Madison remains realistic. “It’s not always going to go how you want it,” she said.

“This year we harvested 22 gallons and another 12 gallons a few weeks later,” Madison said. The family’s business endeavor, Blue River Bee Company, sells honey in McCool, York and Henderson. Inventory usually runs out quickly, Madison said. “It’s a good summer job.”

Starter bees often come from other beekeepers; a few times area residents have found honeybee colonies where they don’t want them. The Gerken’s collect the swarms and relocate it to their hives on a remote, grassy patch near McCool.

Since her graduation from McCool Junction High School, Madison has enrolled in Hastings College, where she majors in biology and minors in psychology. She doesn’t plan on applying her degree to a beekeeping career (she hopes to become a physician’s assistant), but Madison said the family hobby will stick around.

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