Honey highway: How beekeepers maintain healthy bees
In part two of this three part series Whitney explained how he keeps his bees from freezing to death (the females at least). He also shares how he keeps thousands of bees healthy and producing to their full potential in the production of honey.
Mesolithic rock paintings in a cave in the Iberian peninsula of Spain, dating back at least 8,000 years, depicts two honey foragers collecting honey and honeycomb from a wild bees' nest. The product remains a staple of consumption by humans today, but the technology and advancements have certainly changed.
Part beekeeper, part doctor and wholly crazy for honey, Todd Whitney owns and operates Todd's Honey Farm in Richardton, ND.
In the first part of this series, we shared the genesis story for how the honey farm came to be, delved into the business side of haulin' honey and shared how Whitney has become a honey baron of the prairies. In this episode, we'll dive into how he keeps his bees alive during North Dakota's harsh winters, what goes into the care of the bees and how this part-time gig has grown into a lucrative business on the Western Edge.
“If you would’ve asked me ten years ago if I wanted to be a beekeeper, I’m gonna tell ya there ain’t no way I’d want to do that,” Whitney said. “I would rather be doing this here, compared to all the headaches that come with that business, I mean chasing people down for money and people that can’t afford for you to fix their vehicles on the highway. The only thing I miss about that is knowing everybody. Everybody that comes in from the community, you get to know them kind of personally and they liked to visit.”
North Dakota winters are too harsh to keep honeybees, so he ships them southwest for six months out of the year.
“When I ship them to California I lease them to another beekeeper down there. So from the middle of October all the way into April, I don’t even see my bees,” Whitney said, adding he does get to see them briefly before they return. “When they get to the pollination, then I go down there in March and get them ready for shipping back to North Dakota.”
The only bees that get shipped to California are females.
“Males live in the hive as drones, and they do absolutely nothing but take care of the queen — groom her, clean her, pick up after her, they carry the stuff in and out of the hive. But the male hive doesn’t make any honey, they don’t go out and work,” he said. “When it becomes winter, before they go dormant they kick all the drones out of the hive… because they’re worthless to the rest of the workers in the hive. Every bee left in the hive is a woman, all female.”
When the male drones are kicked out for the winter they can’t survive the cold and die off. If allowed to stay in the hive, they would drain its resources.
All beekeepers have different methods and customs, but Whitney medicates his bees at three different points throughout the year: twice in April, twice in October and twice while they’re in California.
“Medicating is the biggest thing in the process, keeping the bees healthy,” he said.
Varroa mites are tiny parasites that look somewhat like ticks. They ride on a bee’s back and cause infections. This problem is mitigated by taking advantage of a bee’s instinct toward cleanliness.
“We mix up a medicine, put it on shop towels and put them inside the hive. The bees will actually run across this towel and get it on them. How it works is other bees come and clean their fellow bees, so that’s how they ingest all this is by cleaning every visitor,” he said.
He mixes canola or vegetable oil with the medicine so it’s easier to spread.
“They like to keep their hives clean so anything foreign that comes into the hive, the bees actually remove it,” he said. “They’ll tear up those towels piece by piece and carry it out of the hive. As they’re doing it, rubbing on that oil… it gets on their bodies and they just keep rubbing against each other, cleaning each other and that’s how it gets through the whole hive.”
Tracheal mites are another problem. These microscopic parasites infect and repopulate inside an adult bee’s respiratory system, making them less productive. Whitney said these infections can happen when honey bees go to flowers. To prevent a fungus called foul brood he uses a tylosin and powdered sugar solution.
The medication process is physically demanding, he said.
“Two of these boxes make a hive. So every time you medicate, you have to split these two boxes, take this box, set it down, put your medicine in there, take this box back up, set it back down on top,” Whitney said. “Each of these boxes could weigh 60 to 80 pounds. So you start going through medicating, it gets to be pretty strenuous on the back.”
He also uses a supplement in their feed called Prohealth that provides vitamins and keeps their stomachs clean for the two month period in the winter when they go dormant. It’s an expensive supplement, and he said using it isn’t as feasible for larger honey farms. Whitney has a relatively small operation compared to others with 10,000 - 20,000 hives and several employees to maintain them.
“I only run 800 hives so I can do it myself. That’s probably the maximum a guy would want to run, being by yourself. It’s a lot,” he said. “It’s a load going out there working, pulling honey by yourself.”
One hive contains a massive community of bees. Within three days one clean frame will be chock full of wax and honey, Whitney said.
“It’s just amazing. You’ve got 60,000 - 80,000 bees working in this hive and there’s bees that never leave the hive, about half of them never leave,” he said.
Honey bees have a special honey stomach that allows them to produce honey. This is separate from their food stomach.
“They take the nectar in and what the (honey) stomach does is it actually breaks down all the sugars in nectar. Then when they get back to the hive, they throw it back up into the cell,” he said, adding that vomiting isn’t a perfect analogy because they utilize a separate stomach. Each honeybee has an average lifespan of 32 -36 days.
If you enjoyed this, stay tuned to www.thedickinsonpress.com for the final part of a three story series featuring Todd’s Honey Farm.