A bittersweet harvest for area beekeepers

The bee harvest for this year's beekeepers is bittersweet. The quality of honey is looking good for most producers in the region, but the quantity is lacking.

The bee harvest for this year's beekeepers is bittersweet. The quality of honey is looking good for most producers in the region, but the quantity is lacking.

Beekeepers in Halliday, Hettinger and Belfield are looking at anywhere from half a crop to about 30 percent less honey production with this year's harvest. Last year, North Dakota ranked number 1 in honey production.

Harvest time for most beekeepers in the region lasts from July 20 to mid-September, but it mostly depends on crop length.

A number of factors affect how much honey is produced. Availability of crops such as alfalfa and sweet clover are important and determine how much nectar is gathered. Similar to farmers and ranchers, beekeepers are dependent on the weather affecting their crops.

Another factor is disease. There are different brood diseases and mites called varroa and tracheal, which can affect a colony. Approved chemicals are used to keep these in check, especially with varroa, which can introduce viruses to a hive. Proper nutrition goes hand in hand with fighting off diseases and mites.


A recent concern which has taken its toll on the bee industry is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This phenomenon has not only increased in the past few years, but more media attention has focused on its emergent growth among the nation's bee crops and its trickle down affect on the nation's agriculture.

More research is currently being done on how and why CCD happens, but essentially it is where worker bees abruptly disappear from a colony and the colony dies off. Some studies point to viruses and others malnutrition or environmental changes. Ways to stop it have yet to be discovered.

Damage is done

American Honey Company owner Sharon Schwahn in Hettinger has a unique operation. She shares the work and results with husband Wes Edwards, who owns his business Edwards Honey.

"He's the beekeeper, but my main job is bottling and marketing, although I help with extracting and work in the fields a bit," Schwahn said. "Wes has been in the business 20 years, while I've been in it for seven."

The CCD affected the couple's total 2,000 hives three years ago. It devastated their honey crop as they lost close to 90 percent of their bees while they were in California pollinating almond trees.

Many producers take some or all of their bees to places such as California or Washington state to pollinate almond or apple trees. The market for pollination is good money for beekeepers affected by CCD, but with any good thing you have to take the bad.

"The bees were healthy when they left here and kept dying out there (California)," Schwahn said. "They've found out so far that it's a virus and possibly coming from Australian bees which don't have the mites our bees do, so we're caught between a rock and hard place on how to treat them."


The couple had to buy more bees and split up the good hives to run more in order to bounce back from the blow.

"Last year was a build up year and this year we're doing well with the rain, but then it dried up so harvesting is going okay," Schwahn said. "You want to average about 100 pounds of honey per hive, which is normal, but we are getting some hives with 35 pounds and some with 70. It's less than previous years when things were going well."

The Newton family in Belfield has several different operations. Barbara Newton works with husband Kenneth W. Newton and Newton Honey Company and said their bees also were affected in California during pollination. Despite CCD, Newton said this year's harvest is not much different from last year.

"I'm not sure yet on what kind of crop we will have, but it will probably be about a half a crop," she said. "We have had a full crop for a long time. The best was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when we had more moisture, more flowers and more nectar then."

Newton and husband aren't looking to increase their business at this time.

"We're trying to decrease. At our age we're looking at retirement," she said. "We run about 900 hives right now. Our younger son, Kelly, has 600."

Their other son, Kenneth Ray Newton of Belfield, said the colonies he brought to California to pollinate almond trees encountered CCD in January and he lost a third of his bees.

"It's never happened before," Newton said. "We've had bee losses from various diseases hit unexpectedly, but we're not sure what this is or what to do about it. I still see some signs of it. It could be a virus running its way out, but I'm not sure if it would come back again."


Kenneth Ray Newton's company is called Ray's Bees and his brother Kelly Newton has the business Liquid Gold Honey.

Kenneth Ray has about 1,800 hives during the summer, with around 60 pounds of product per hive. Among the three companies in his immediate family there are close to 5,000 total hives, he said.

With the national attention on CCD, Newton is hoping to find out what exactly is going on and what can be done.

"It might help us with getting government programs (for beekeepers)," Newton said. "If you needed a treatment for bees it takes way too long to get everything, but a rancher who has something wrong with his cattle can get what he needs much sooner."

Surviving conditions

Halliday's Brent Woodworth owns Woodworth Honey & Bee Company and said his harvest is down 30 percent, but the honey quality is good and others report the same.

"The light honey is extremely nice. Honey seems to mostly be coming from alfalfa and fewer from sweet clover this year," Woodworth said. "It depended on where it rained most."

Last year, Woodworth averaged 130 pounds per colony, while this year he won't reach the 100-pound mark, but will see more in the 80-pound range.


Beekeepers agree due to the drought the last few years, the harvest has not been as good as it was in the past.

"This year, some timely rainhelped and the bees ended built up and go stronger, so we'll get about a half crop this year again," Kenneth Ray Newton said. "I've increased my numbers over the years. You have to in order to survive."

If it wasn't for almond tree pollination, Newton wouldn't know how he'd be doing today, he added.

"Having the almond pollination has helped us pay for some bad years," Newton said. "Almond prices have tripled since I ran bees. It's kept us in business and others. Honey and almonds are based on supply and demand. You don't get almonds unless there's pollination."

Schwahn's and Edwards' operations may not have been affected by CCD this year as they were three years ago, but drier conditions have taken a toll. Before drought hit the region, the companies were running an average of 100 pounds per hive, but Schwahn said that was at least five years ago.

"Pollination is mainly where the money is now," she added.

As for the honey market, Woodworth said it's hard to tell how it stands right now.

"China is a big player and Argentina exports a lot of honey too, but Argentina is on opposite seasons to us so they come into play in the spring," Woodworth said. "The market definitely goes up closer to holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas when people are baking more. Right now it's at the low- to mid-90 cent range or at least under a $1 per pound."


The prices are higher than they were six years ago, but not as high as in 2003 when honey jumped to $1.50 per pound. The jump was due to no Chinese export of honey at the time.

For now, beekeepers have to wait and see how much the market fluctuates.

What To Read Next
Get Local