Superintendents add beekeeping  to their golf  course duties

Scott Witte kneels next to a tree where honeybees are nesting. The bees may have migrated from one of Witte’s colonies. PHOTO BY DAN WHITE/DAILY HERALD

Scott Witte kneels next to a tree where honeybees are nesting. The bees may have migrated from one of Witte’s colonies. PHOTO BY DAN WHITE/DAILY HERALD

Honeybees surround Erwin McKone, buzzing his head and pelting his protective veil. They crawl on his protective jacket and long leather gloves.

But McKone, director of golf course operations at Briar Ridge Country Club in Schererville, Indiana, is unflappable as he goes about checking a hive to ensure the honeybees are healthy. As he works, prying open a frame from one of the three hives located on the golf course, more bees begin to swarm. McKone, however, is unfazed by them.

“The bees seem to like me … some days,” McKone jokes, as he places the frame back in the hive.

He lifts another frame from the hive and studies it, while bees creep on honeycomb. “It’s super interesting to watch them and what they’re doing,” he says.

McKone has been beekeeping on the course for three years. The hives are located in brush near a fairway on the private 27-hole course.

McKone isn’t the only golf course superintendent who has added beekeeping to his duties. Scott Witte, the certified golf course superintendent at the 36-hole Cantigny Golf and Youth Links in Wheaton, Illinois, has been beekeeping on his course for five years. Brian Stiehler, the certified golf course superintendent at the 18-hole Highlands Country Club in Highlands, North Carolina, began beekeeping last spring, as did Jeff Corcoran, manager of golf courses and grounds at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York. They estimate it costs about $800 to $1,000 to get started with beekeeping to purchase equipment and a few hives.

The four superintendents are also trying to get more of their peers involved in beekeeping.

“I’d love to see beekeeping become a movement among superintendents,” Witte says.

McKone says a member at Briar Ridge suggested he keep some hives on the golf course.

“It was the opportunity for this place to become more than a golf course,” explains McKone, who loved the idea. He learned about beekeeping through several means, including reading “Beekeeping for Dummies,” but he says setting up the hives and tending to them for the first few months provided the best learning experience.

McKone recalls the first time he dumped a box containing thousands of bees into a hive. With the bees zooming around him, McKone felt like he was in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

“They scared the daylights out of me,” he admits. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

Now his bees are more like pets, and it’s not uncommon for McKone to talk to them.

Witte says a beekeeping friend told him, “You should keep bees on the course.” Like McKone, he was intrigued by the proposition.

Witte, who has been at Cantigny for almost 20 years, says he considers himself “an ambassador for golf’s environmental opportunities.” Cantigny, regarded as one of the nation’s top public courses, has been a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary since 1993.

“[The environment] is something I’ve been extremely passionate about since I arrived here in 1995,” Witte says.

The seven hives on the course are located within 250 feet of the maintenance facility and can be seen from two holes on the property. There are also three natural hives settled in tree cracks that may have resulted from bees migrating from Witte’s colonies.

He says the bees are so intimately connected to the ecosystem that they provide a barometer to the health of the environment, including that of the golf course.

“I theorize that healthy honeybees should equal a healthy environment,” says Witte, who has even planted “honeybee happy zones” on the golf course — such as patches of clover and native prairie areas — for honeybees to pollinate.

Stiehler, who has been at Highlands for 14 years, says he “grew up as an environmentally conscious young man.” Stiehler says the club’s members have always had an affinity for nature. The course is also a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Stiehler spent last winter preparing an area for the two hives he purchased in the spring.

“I’ve enjoyed this so much that next year I’m going to expand to maybe 10 hives,” he states.

On a 1.5-acre parcel across the street from the golf course’s 10th hole, Stiehler has his “farm,” where he grows vegetables, fruits and flowers. It’s also where he keeps the hives. The area is surrounded by an electric fence to keep out bears that would destroy the hives to get to the honey inside.

Corcoran doesn’t consider himself a tree-hugging superintendent, but it was the toppling of a hardwood tree that got him into beekeeping. In 2013, Oak Hill hosted the PGA Championship, which attracted thousands of golf fans. While clearing some property to construct a bus loop to accommodate fans, workers knocked down a huge oak tree that contained a massive honeybee hive. Corcoran, aware of the honeybee’s plight, took it to heart.

“Obviously, the hive had been there for years, and we destroyed it in a day,” Corcoran says. “I felt bad about it.”

He decided to do something about it and began researching beekeeping last fall. He took beekeeping classes and reached out to an experienced beekeeper for assistance. In the spring he purchased two hives and set them up near the club’s maintenance facility.

“I think with our background — many superintendents have taken entomology courses — superintendents are able to grasp something like this quickly,” Corcoran says.

While hives can be left alone for up to two or three weeks at a time, the superintendents check on them regularly, even if they’re just driving by in their utility vehicles.

Jeff Corcoran says beekeeping is “one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.” PHOTO COURTESY OF OAK HILL COUNTRY CLUB.

Jeff Corcoran says beekeeping is “one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.” PHOTO COURTESY OF OAK HILL COUNTRY CLUB.

“It’s not a huge time commitment,” says Corcoran.

Managing a hive is also a lot like managing turf, he adds. “You know that if you get a 90-degree day, you probably need to spray X to prevent Z. It kind of dovetails into what we do every day.”

Witte recruited a few community volunteers to help care for the hives.

The superintendents are also partaking in the fruits of the bees’ labor — eating the honey they make.

“It’s amazing how good that stuff is,” Stiehler says.

Corcoran bottles the honey and had a label created for his “Championship Honey.” The extracting process is a bit messy, but not rocket science, he says.

Witte and McKone have taken the process a step further. Witte sells honey extracted from the hives, as well as lip balm and candles made from beeswax in the course’s pro shop. Money from the sales is used in the course’s ongoing environmental initiatives.

At Briar Ridge, the clubhouse chef uses honey in some of his recipes. McKone plans to organize a festival day on the course next year to celebrate the honey extraction.

“It would be a great family activity,” he says.

A big reason the superintendents decided to become beekeepers is their concern about colony collapse disorder (CCD). In the last eight years, beekeepers have reported losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives. While such losses aren’t unexpected, especially over the winter, the numbers have been unusually high. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), CCD “is a serious problem threatening the health of honeybees and the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the United States.”

McKone, Witte, Stiehler and Corcoran want to do their part to help restore the honeybee population.

“Beehives require a lot of assistance from humans because of environmental pressures,” Witte says. “Because of CCD, honeybees are in a worldwide decline and need all the help they can get. That’s why superintendents need to be part of the solution, not the problem.”

Insecticides, specifically from the neonicotinoid class, have been blamed for honeybees’ demise in some environmental circles. Golf courses use such insecticides to treat for grubs and other insects.

“That’s typical of narrow-minded environmentalists who want so badly to blame one thing to find the guilty culprit,” Witte says. “When in reality the guilty culprit can’t be counted on one hand.”

He realizes that insecticides could hurt honeybee populations if not used properly, but says, “If you blame just neonicotinoids, you’re missing the boat because there are more antagonistic pathogens that work against honeybees nowadays than there have ever been.”

One example is varroa mites, which Stiehler believes is the main cause of CCD. The virus-transmitting parasite of honeybees has frequently been found in hives hit by CCD, according to the USDA.

While it’s easy to blame pesticides, McKone wonders if the millions of frequencies caused by cellphones, radios and other new technologies are contributing to CCD.

“Imagine if we could see all the frequencies around us,” McKone says. “It would probably freak us out.”

Corcoran points out that even the best bee researchers in the world can’t figure out what’s causing CCD.

Despite claims in the general and scientific media, researchers haven’t identified a cause, or causes, of CCD, according to the USDA. However, harsh winters are known to destroy hives.

“My biggest fear is keeping the bees alive through the winter,” Stiehler says.

McKone and Witte have both lost colonies because of cold winters. Last winter, Witte insulated the hives and made sure the bees had ample food for the winter, but it wasn’t enough.

“It was just too stressful, especially with the prolonged cold periods,” notes Witte, who lost six hives. “Even if you’re a beekeeper with 20 years of experience, you’re going to lose hives if you encounter a winter like last winter.”

McKone wants to help find out what’s causing CCD in addition to discovering the conditions in which bees survive and thrive.

“The more data we can collect, the better off we are and the more knowledgeable we are,” he says.

On the subject of insecticides being under fire, McKone has noticed that industry pesticide companies have taken a stance on the subject, specifically Syngenta and Bayer. Earlier this year, Syngenta rolled out Operation Pollinator, a program that aims to assist the populations of honeybees and pollinating insects by creating valuable habitats in out-of-play areas on golf courses. Last spring, Bayer opened its North American Bee Center, located at the company’s Research Triangle Park campus in North Carolina, to serve as a focal point for existing and future bee health initiatives, including active promotion of
“bee-responsible use” of its products.

“It shows what they value,” McKone says. “They have gone on the positive, not the defensive. They want to help find solutions to the problem.”

For the most part, the clientele at the four golf courses has embraced the superintendents’ beekeeping efforts.

“The members took a real interest in it, and the public relations we received from it has been great,” Stiehler says. “I never thought it would be so well received by so many.”

Witte says golfers are more fascinated of the bees than fearful of them. Because of the hives, he’s talking more with golfers about the topic of golf and the environment.

“This has been a great public relations tool that has helped me connect with people on a whole different level that I never anticipated,” he adds.

One time, Witte donned his beekeeping suit and veil and tended to his hives with a group of about 12 golfers watching him.

“They were eating it up,” he says. “The look on their faces was priceless.”

At Briar Ridge, though, some members were concerned when they heard about McKone’s plan to put hives on the course. One woman told McKone that her husband was allergic and could die if stung by a bee.

“I could sympathize with that concern,” McKone says. “If I had a loved one [who was allergic], I’d be worried, too.”

McKone told the members that he understood their feelings, but explained that there was nothing to worry about, especially since honeybees are less aggressive than other stinging insects.

“I told them they had a greater chance of being stung by a yellow jacket flying around a trash can,” he adds.

Thanks to educational efforts, the hives are now a non-issue at Briar Ridge.

“The bees don’t bother anybody, and nobody bothers them,” McKone says.

Perhaps Corcoran sums up the four superintendents’ collective feeling toward beekeeping when he says, “This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

Want to be a Beekeeper?

  •  If you’re interested in keeping bees on or near your golf course, keep in mind the following:
  • Study up. Read books, watch videos and talk to seasoned beekeepers before deciding if it’s your cup of tea. Consult your local beekeeping association. You need to learn the craft before delving into it.

  • Make sure others — your boss, your members/golfers — are on board with keeping bees on the property.

  • Educate. Some people at your course might be concerned about getting stung. Explain to them that honeybees are pollinating insects and will typically not bother humans unless provoked.

  • It will cost about $800 to $1,000 to get started keeping bees, including equipment and two hives.

Five Tips for Creating  Pollinator-friendly Practices

 1. Welcome pollinators to your course by choosing pollinator-friendly plants. Honeybees prefer blue, yellow, or bright white flowers that have large landing surfaces and shallow shapes.

2. Plant a variety of flowers that bloom throughout the growing season to provide continual pollinating opportunities.

3. Grow native flowers and plants. They will adapt better to where you live and provide a familiar food source to local pollinators.

4. “Bee” responsible by always reading and following label instructions when using any pesticide products. Make sure to choose the right product for your problem, and apply it correctly.

5. Download and use a pollinator-friendly planting guide app from your smartphone or mobile device.

Source: Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment. Learn more about the many factors affecting bee health at

Video: Watch Erwin McKone check in on his hives!