Honey bees are busily gathering nectar from the purple coneflowers planted near the Cantigny Golf Clubhouse.
These flying producers of golden honey are a source of pride and joy to golf superintendent Scott Witte. In addition to maintaining the playing surfaces of the 36-hole golf course, Witte cares for 10 beehives and keeps a protective eye on three natural beehives on the course.
The 18-year employee of Cantigny Golf said he started beekeeping four years ago.
"You become so attached to them. They're like your kids," he says. "I'm smitten with them."
The bees produce the honey and beeswax for the candles sold in the Golf Shop, which also soon will carry lip balm containing beeswax. The money goes to Cantigny Golf's environment projects, and recently gave a boost to a beekeeping club at a high school in Ghana.
Witte explained the Cantigny Golf Bee Barometer Project used $200 of its "honey money" to give the Awutu-Winton Bee Club three bee suits and two smokers. The students sent letters of appreciation for the gift.
"Their letters were beautiful and eloquent. I look forward to that (ongoing relationship) because, quite frankly, of how gracious they were," he says.
Beekeeping and outreach fit into Cantigny Golf's designation as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary by Audubon International. Cantigny became one of the first golf courses in the country to gain the designation in 1993, and since has expanded on the ways it serves as a natural sanctuary.
"I've always considered myself an ambassador for golf's environmental opportunities. I thought this is one more thing we could add," Witte says of the beekeeping.
Cantigny Golf's more than 300 acres also play host to programs to restore prairie, remove invasive species, stock fish ponds, monitor bluebird nest boxes and butterflies, and serve as a sanctuary to purple martins. Cantigny Golf collects plastic fertilizer drums from other golf courses to turn into rain barrels sold in the Golf Shop.
"You can't help but experience nature up close and personal when you play golf here at Cantigny," Witte says.
Big on bees
So when a friend suggested a few years ago that Cantigny Golf would be the perfect environment for beekeeping, Witte was game. The self-taught apiarist has learned to check on the health of hives weekly; build frames for the bees to deposit their honey; capture swarms of bees looking for a new home; provide insulation and ventilation in the winter; and, with the help of volunteers, harvest, filter and bottle honey.
Witte named his effort the Cantigny Golf Bee Barometer Project because bees serve as a barometer for the health of the environment. So far the growth of the beehives at Cantigny has proved that the golf course's concern for the natural world and careful use of pesticides has paid off, he says.
"Healthy bees should equal a healthy environment," he says.
Bees -- necessary to the pollination of many plants -- face threats not just from pesticides, but from insects carrying viruses, pollution and other encroachments of modern life. To help build knowledge of what's needed to maintain healthy bee populations, Cantigny participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bee Informed project.
"Honey bees in general are under a tremendous amount of stress," Witte says. "Honey bees need as much help as they can get."
That's why Witte is pleased to let golfers know that the three natural beehives in the hollows of old trees on the course do not pose any threat to them and should not be disturbed. Honey bees are interested in making their way to the next flower, not attacking humans, he says.
"It's been a great PR tool just in educating golfers," he says. "If you're nice to them (bees), they'll be nice to you."
Resourceful as they are, bees gather pollen that provides protein from the golf course's silver maple trees in early spring, Witte says. The bees like clover and annual flowers, of course, but also favor the blossoms of linden, locust and northern catalpa trees, Witte says.
"A lot of people don't associate honey bees with trees," he says.
Female worker bees gather pollen and nectar to take back to the hive to nurture the larvae. Drone (male) bees live only to mate with the queen, which lays all the eggs in the hive. When the queen grows older and stops producing as many eggs, the worker bees can tell the change by the chemical substance she gives off and start feeding large amounts of royal jelly to some of the female larvae to produced a new queen.
The older queen may fade away, be killed or leave with part of the hive in a process called swarming.
Bees also may swarm if they run out of space, so Witte builds additional frames to give them a place to deposit their honey. After the honey is harvested in late summer or fall, Witte offers sugar syrup and a type of homemade candy to provide additional food for the bees.
The Cantigny bee project went global after Marcus Hagberg visited Cantigny in late spring.
The son of Susan Hagberg, owner of Wild Goose Chase, a company Cantigny contracts with to keep geese off the golf course, Marcus Hagberg is the project manager for Educational Development Projects Trust, a British charity that funds and manages a high school in Ghana.
In an email interview, Hagberg said the Awutu-Winton Senior High School provides a free education to disadvantaged youth. The high school started a bee club soon after it opened in 2010 with an eye to possibly turning beekeeping into a microenterpise to help support the school. More than 30 enthusiastic students participate in the club, Hagberg said.
The students bottle the honey to sell locally. The gift of the three bee suits and two smokers may enable the club to expand its sales by giving students a safer and more efficient way to harvest honey, Hagberg said. Before the gift from Cantigny, the club had only one smoker (to calm bees) and a variety of inconsistent protective clothing to manage its six hives, he said.
"Scott's donations are the first proper protective bee suits the bee club has had," he said. "Scott's donations have allowed the bee club to harvest honey on a more regular basis, as they now have more smokers and adequate protective suits to sufficiently harvest multiple hives simultaneously."
Like Witte, Hagberg said he hopes the relationship with Cantigny will be ongoing. The EDP charity that funds the school wants not just to build up the beekeeping project but to encourage students to pursue other agriculture-related enterprises, he said.
For information on Educational Development Projects Trust and ways to contribute, see edp-trust.org.
That the students in Ghana are pursuing projects that bring them closer to nature couldn't please Witte more. The married father of a teenage son and daughter, the Bartlett resident also works on his church's Camp Paradise in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The purpose of the camp is to give fathers bonding time with children in the natural world, away from the distractions of modern life, he says.
"What got me in the golf course profession wasn't the game of golf," he says. "It was always a passion for all things green. I just wanted to be outdoors."