In the bee business: North Dakota honey farmer Ray Green faces uncertainty
By Mike Hricik
Green, his arms ticked here and there with bee stings, is busy supervising the placement of apiaries, or man-made beehives, on land within a 60-mile radius of his farm.
Uncertainty comes with Green’s line of work this time of year. Honeybees will use the structures to store their food — pollen and honey — but unexplained bee deaths that have occurred since the early 2000s have caused some honey farmers to leave the business entirely, Green said.
“(Honey farmers) are on pins and needles right now,” he said.
The Mott farmer owns and operates RG’s Bees, a large honey-making facility that also transports bees as pollinators to Bakersfield, Calif.
In a few weeks, his sons and other farm workers will bring back the apiaries to be harvested. But how much honey will there be when 70 percent of Green’s bees died a few seasons ago?
How honey is harvested
In a few weeks, Green’s workers will fill semi-trucks with apiaries, adorned in protective beekeeping clothing. Green has permission from landowners surrounding his farm to place hives on their properties.
Frames covered in honey are loaded onto a large processing machine, hundreds at a time after beekeepers remove bees with fumes.
Once a bee fills a cell with honey, it is sealed with beeswax, used in candle making and makeup.
Individual cells are stripped of their wax during the first step of processing. The wax is then filtered through a pipe system in one of Green’s warehouses and formed into small, pliable blocks.
The machine may heat up the honey, depending on humidity conditions, to prevent it from being too watery. The machine evaporates excess water.
Honey travels to a large vat, where wax is further separated from the end product.
The honey is finally funneled into a large hopper, which holds 55 barrels of honey. Each barrel contains 27 gallons.
Barrels are then transported to packaging and processing facilities.
In 1988, Green estimated that he produced about 147 pounds of honey for each of his apiaries. Today, he said he will be lucky to get over more than 60.
But that isn’t stopping him from pressing forward during difficult times for bees.
“I’m too old to do anything else,” Green said. “I still think I’m damn good at what I do.”
Green got into the honey harvesting business in 1976 because a relative convinced him there was money to be made. So he received a loan and purchased his first apiaries.
He approaches that decision more than 30 years later with both measured regret and unrestrained passion.
“All of a sudden you get grabbed by a love for what you do, and you get very emotional when you start losing bees,” he said. “I could have definitely done worse things with my life.”
His bees have been plagued by seasons where more than half his bees die from winter to fall.
Pests, pesticides, diseases and colony collapses from unknown causes can all kill these insects.
Green chalks up disappearing to changing farming practices spurred by new technologies, which has left bees with far less pollen.
“Farmers used to have a patch of alfalfa, and clover came every year,” he said. “Now you can’t depend on anything.”
North Dakota is the No. 1 producer of honey nationwide, creating 34 million pounds of it in 2012, according to the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has pledged upwards of $11 million to Midwest states to preserve bee habitats with land conservation incentives. Millions more in federal money have been freed up to encourage new farmers to take up honey harvesting.
Green said he is weary about government intervention efforts, which he thinks will just leave unused farm equipment in the fields.
In the late 1980s, Green made the decision to stop just making honey because of fluctuating prices. Today, he is paid transporting bees to California to help pollinate crops like almonds and blueberries.
Even that choice has come back to sting.
Last year, one of Green’s longtime workers was charged with stealing his hives and bees while in Bakersfield. The man later fled to Mexico after posting his bail, Green said.
“It’s hard to tell who you can trust,” he said.