CONNEAUT TOWNSHIP — It used to be a familiar summer sound, the buzzing of bees in trees and flowers. Charles Vorisek, owner of Vorisek's Backyard Bee Farm in Conneaut Township, would like to make that sound common in Pennsylvania again.
Vorisek is one of three local residents chosen for the 2019 Crawford County Agriculture Hall of Fame & Ag Industry Awards, and according to Vorisek's own account, only the second beekeeper to hold this distinction.
Yet, beekeeping wasn't always Vorisek's focus. Before bees became his primary business, he was involved in the tool and die trade for 30 years.
Having an apiary or collection of beehives of his own started "as a tease," as he puts it. His oldest daughter was on a trip to the University of Maryland and spied an apiary on campus. Vorisek was interested, and he encouraged his daughter to do something different for her FFA project.
"I teased her and said everybody’s got hogs and Holsteins," Vorisek said. "What about something different with bees? She never said no."
Vorisek's oldest daughter and her sister carried on the enterprise collectively for nine years. It didn't hurt that, as an agricultural project for FFA, it could be considered tax exempt. However, Vorisek remained interested and turned it into a full-fledged business. When Vorisek took over as chair of the Crawford County Fair's apiary products department in the 1990s, there were almost no farmers who showed honey.
"When we started, there were no beekeeper classes," Vorisek said. "You just stumble along, read the books and keep educating yourself. But I can always see some potential."
The biggest challenge came not in the form of avoiding stings or harvesting honey but in the form of a mite, specifically the parasitic varroa mite. The varroa mite lives in the hive, reproduces in the brood, weakening the hive with diseases and viruses and eventually collapsing the colony. Vorisek said the mite led to several older beekeepers leaving the practice behind rather than contend with the pests overtaking their work.
"We have a decline in bees," Vorisek said. "I can lose 50 percent of my bees during the winter, and that’s a struggle. It’s largely due to mites."
Nevertheless, Vorisek worked with the Penn State Extension in West Mead Township and Lee Miller in Beaver County to restart beekeeping in the area. It began with the revival of the Northwest Pennsylvania Beekeepers organization in 2001, which folded in the '90s. But Vorisek set his sights on the state level.
It was in 2006 that he was called in by David Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper in several states, who experienced a severe setback — colony collapse.
"That winter, he suggested me for a news interview that went national or international through the AP," Vorisek said. "He also was the one that nominated me for a board position."
That board was the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association, where he eventually became president in 2012. A key ally was then-Secretary of Agriculture George Greig, who is also from Conneaut Township.
"He’s basically my neighbor," Vorisek said. "He’s three miles away from me. It created a really nice relationship where if I wanted some things done, he was the guy who could do it. I think we gained a lot of dialogue on issues."
One issue for which Vorisek advocated was the need for more state inspectors. He knew of a law that said beekeepers had to be subject to state inspection every other year, and at the time, Pennsylvania was down to one or two inspectors.
Due to collaboration between Vorisek and Greig there are seven inspectors, one for each agricultural region. He also noted the importance of small beekeeping operations spread throughout the state as important for the future of bees, especially considering the loss of habitat for feral colonies.
"Of the beekeepers in Pennsylvania, six percent or less have 250 colonies or more," Vorisek said. "It’s a very small segment. The majority of beekeepers have 10 or fewer colonies. The dynamics of the industry have changed from commercial to hobby."
In addition, Vorisek began the Apriary Advisory Board, which discusses issues with the Department of Agriculture twice a year, and, though no longer president, he serves the association as legislative chair. He also works on a state queen bee improvement program to encourage mite-resistant populations and represents the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau at the Penn State Center for Pollinator Research.
When asked how he was able to be involved in so many aspects of beekeeping, he simply said, "I ask myself that. I don’t know."
On receiving the recognition from the Agricultural Hall of Fame, he remarked they forgot to add his name to the nominations and was modest about the honor.
"I’m humbled by it," Vorisek said. "The last beekeeper to be named to the hall of fame was Merton Gray sometime in the early ‘80s. I never knew the man, but he was pretty well-known in the area. Only being the second beekeeper to be in the hall of fame is important. I appreciate it."
Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.