South Dakota’s bee industry produces honey, money

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Farm Forum

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) – Bob Reiners is keenly aware of the trials and tribulations facing one of South Dakota’s migrant worker populations.

The workers he observes aren’t human, though – they’re bees quietly buzzing around the state in the summer months before turning to fields and orchards in other parts of the country to work there during the winter.

Reiners is South Dakota’s state apiarist, meaning he studies bees – a booming industry these days.

The soil, topography and climate during the summer has led South Dakota to cash in on the sweet nectar produced by well-traveled bees. In 2013, the state ranked third in the nation, with 321,000 colonies producing 14.8 million pounds of honey. The state’s 216 beekeepers helped produce $30.5 million worth of honey.

South Dakota annually ranks among the top honey-producing states in the nation, in large part due to the constant migration of bees and their keepers. Thousands of beekeepers from across the country make their way through South Dakota.

Like their honey-producing counterparts, beekeepers are busy travelers.

“Beekeepers are the last cowboys out there,” says Gordon Wardell, senior biologist and bee expert for California-based Paramount Farming Co. “They throw their bees on a truck and move them around to the forage instead of trying to make the forage come to them.”

With about 46,000 acres, Paramount Farming is the largest almond producer in the nation. The company relies heavily on the multi-state trek South Dakota beekeepers take each winter.

“If we didn’t have bees, we wouldn’t have almonds on the trees,” Wardell said.

The bees help cross-pollinate the different varieties of almond trees found at Paramount Farming. Wardell estimates as much as 60 percent of the bees that come to California call South Dakota home during the summer.

Alan Schroeder, owner of Mount Vernon Honey Co. – located 12 miles west of Mitchell – is among the hundreds of South Dakota beekeepers who send their bees to California.

Schroeder and his wife, Eva, pack 1,200 hives onto three semi-trucks to make the migration to warmer climes to avoid the harsh winter on the Great Plains. The buzzing trucks will be unloaded into almond orchards to do their work of cross-pollination.

The annual journey forces Schroeder to travel hundreds of miles to look after his bees.

“I will go at least three times during the winter months to feed them some type of syrup,” he said.

By mid-April or the beginning of May – depending upon the weather – bees from all over the country will make their pilgrimage to South Dakota, including many from California.

“Beekeepers all over the country look at South Dakota and North Dakota as primary forage for bees,” Wardell said.

That’s because South Dakota has long days, warm weather, tremendous amounts of food and good water for bees, he explained.

Once the healthy summer forage disappears, so too will the state’s small workers. They will head to cotton fields in Texas, almond orchards in California or Mississippi, where fall is later than other states, allowing the bees to survive.

The yearly migratory pattern has created a symbiotic relationship between members of the agricultural industry and beekeepers throughout the country. What goes on in South Dakota can affect California’s almond production and vice versa.

That’s why such things as habitat loss in South Dakota can have a significant impact on honey and other types of food production nationwide. The topic received significant discussion when bee experts recently gathered at the annual South Dakota Beekeepers Association in Aberdeen.

“Loss of habitat was a pretty big topic,” Reiners said. “We piggy-backed with Pheasants Forever folks, who came and talked about the issues they’re seeing. We’re both suffering the same consequences.”

Like South Dakota’s cash-crop of ring-necked pheasants, changes in South Dakota’s habitat in recent years have affected the bee industry. The decisions of landowners to use pesticides or no-till techniques has led to increasingly difficult times.

When corn was cultivated, there’d be clover growing between the stalks of corn, said Schroeder. “That was years ago. Now with all the no-till and spraying going on, nothing is living but the corn stalks in those fields.”

The use of chemicals on forage that bees feed on can lead to many complications. Last year, in California, at the end of the pollination season some farmers put a batch of chemicals on their trees, which in turn harmed many bees.

Wardell said a mixture of chemicals containing insect growth regulator was sprayed on almond trees – not at Paramount Farming – during the daytime, which affected the larvae after the chemical stuck to the adult bees. The toxic brew killed thousands of young bees.

Today beekeepers hope to continue to work with chemical companies to strike a healthy balance.

“The relationship between bees, man and agriculture has gone on for 3,000 years – since the time of the Egyptians,” said Wardell. “As we evolved, we brought plants up with us that we like to eat. And along with those plants, we brought the bees because we like honey. But we also needed the pollination. Now we have this three-way balance. When it gets out of balance, we have to figure out how to bring it back.”

Today, the focus for many beekeepers has shifted from earning a living to sustainability.

“I need to make honey to make money, but at the same time I just need to keep the bees alive,” said Schroeder.

Despite struggling with habitat losses, Reiners and other attendees of the bee conference are optimistic about the industry.

“This year it seems everyone’s spirits were upbeat. The bees looked better this year than last year,” he said. “They’re all hoping they can make some honey.”

So that beekeepers can make some money.