Ron Fischer was born and raised in Oak Park, Ill., and spent much of his adult life working as an accountant for various high-powered financial services companies.
But always in the background was the pull of his grandparents’ 1844 farm between Orion and Coal Valley, Ill., the fifth-oldest in Rock Island County.
He spent a lot of time there as a child, developing an interest in gardening, and as an adult he staked out a plot of his own where he planted an orchard and berry patches of all kinds. He worked in the Chicago area, but he returned to the farm for his hobby.
In 1970, he bought a honeybee hive because his berries and fruits needed bees for pollination and, having “no idea how to keep bees at all,” he took courses from the University of Illinois and Ohio State University.
Fischer’s life has now come full circle.
In 2005, he bought 60 acres of the farm and moved there. Now he is the expert, teaching others about beekeeping.
Fischer will share what he’s learned on Saturday, March 20, when he will be one of 12 speakers presenting 19 different talks during the Art of Gardening symposium at Muscatine (Iowa) Community College.
Other topics include native plants, rain gardens, rain barrels, fairy gardens, water features, stonescaping, shade gardening, trees, non-chemical approaches to weed control in turf, square-foot gardening and hardy roses.
Program organizer Kayla Holst says Fischer talked at the event last year, too, and his was the table that had the most people gathered around it during the break.
“The participants were drawn to him like bees to honey,” she said.
If you want to set up your own beekeeping operation, it will cost you about $600 to get started, and you’ll first need to check ordinances in your community to see whether it is even permitted.
If you’re in a rural area or an agriculturally zoned area of a city, there should be no problem. The City of Rock Island permits beekeeping in residential areas as long as it is for personal, not commercial, use. But Moline, Bettendorf and Davenport do not allow bees to be kept in residential areas.
“We don’t want to co-mingle uses,” said Greg Beck, Bettendorf’s city planner. “We want to draw the line and say this is what it is. We don’t want to see a graying of those defined lines. Where does it end? Someone might say, ‘Why can’t I raise ferrets?’ or ‘Why can’t I raise dogs?’ ”
The City of Davenport had to close down a beekeeper in the area of Vander Veer Botanical Park after receiving a complaint from a neighbor who is allergic to bees, city designer Darrin Nordahl said.
The cost of setting up an operation covers the bees, the wooden goods (the containers in which the bees live and put their honey), an extractor for getting the surplus honey out of the combs, a hive tool for prying apart the boxes, a smoker (to calm the bees when you work with them) and a suit, veil and gloves for protection.
But to hear Fischer describe it, beekeeping itself is not difficult:
Buy the bees (they’re shipped through the mail!), set them up in a hive and they do the rest. They find their own food and pretty much take care of themselves.
Fear of being stung should not be a deterrent, Fischer says. “Honeybees will sting only when they are defending the hive, when they are aggravated.”
So don’t aggravate them and you should have no problem.
Fischer has confined his hives to rural areas.
He enjoys cooking with honey and sells his surplus as well as other products such as creamed honey, lip balm, lotion bars and candles.
He belongs to many state and national beekeeping associations and is a frequent guest on Chicago radio powerhouse WGN-AM.
Fischer also works at Wallace’s Greenhouse & Garden Center in Bettendorf, helping to raise the thousands of perennials, roses, trees and shrubs that are grown in the nursery there and working the retail lot, answering buyers’ questions.
Photo is claim to fame
In 1981, Fischer was photographed, bare-chested and covered with honeybees, by internationally known photographer Richard Avedon.
The bee picture was part of a six-year project commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, in which Avedon took 125 portraits of drifters, miners, cowboys and others from the western United States.
The picture has been featured in Time, Life and Newsweek magazines, and a Web site listing of Avedon’s 12 most famous photos ranks the one with Fischer next to those he took of The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe and Dwight Eisenhower.
Fischer says he gets asked about the photo “all the time” and is always happy to tell the story.
It began when he answered an ad in a national beekeeping journal seeking a man or woman willing to be photographed with bees by a “world-famous photographer.”
The ad asked for a current picture, and because Fischer was working then for Northern Trust, an international financial services company with its headquarters in Chicago, he sent a photo of himself wearing a three-piece suit.
He was selected, and because the portraits were supposed to be of people from the western United States, it was decided — in a bit of a stretch to meet the qualifications — that Fischer would be photographed in a tomato field outside the University of California-Davis.
Fischer was positioned standing in front of a barn onto which white paper was tacked for a plain background.
To get the bees to land on Fischer, a university entomologist he was acquainted with patted queen bee pheromone (an attractant for other bees) onto several spots on Fischer’s head and chest.
Then, about 200 feet away, packages of bees were opened on the ground. The bees detected the pheromone and began to move.
Fischer still remembers watching the swarm of bees heading his way.
“They started forming a cloud over my head,” he says.
He wasn’t exactly scared, but he wasn’t sure what to expect, either, because he’d “never done anything like this before.
“Then they started landing on my head and chest. What was really something is that each bee has six legs. If you multiply that by thousands of bees, it sort of tickles over your bare skin.”
He was stung twice, but to no ill effect. Fischer posed for an hour-and-a-half the first day and a half-hour a second day.
When Avedon was finished, Fischer gently brushed off the bees, put on a shirt and got into a car.
Avedon began his career in fashion photography and expanded into fine art. He died in 2004.