Buzz about bees: It’s a tough business

Keeping bees alive is the biggest challenge for North Dakota beekeeper Marie Ackerman.

By Luann Dart

Wearing rubber boots and a cap tugged tightly onto her head, Marie Ackerman isn’t winning fashion points. But that’s not the point. She’s toiling in a tough business, where daily stings are common and catastrophe is even more common. And it all depends on those busy little bees buzzing about the countryside who are working hard, too.

Stray honeybees flit throughout the building where Ackerman’s Bee Unique Honey is headquartered near Elgin, N.D. White boxes, called supers, are stacked to the ceiling just inside the door. Further inside, Ackerman is hosing down the concrete floor, where the heat of the water wafts across the room and mixes with the sharp smell of processed honey.

Ackerman is among a handful of women who operate apiaries in North Dakota, a role she finds both challenging and rewarding as she tends to 3,000 hives in Grant and Stark counties during the summer, then trucks the bees to California for overwintering as pollinators.

As a partner with her husband, Dan, on the family ranch, Marie had previously earned an off-farm income by working in everything from road construction to the local elevator.

So, when she was approached about working part time at Lee and Karol Hoff’s apiary in 2004, she tackled that task as well.

“It was outside,” she says. “I like being outside.”

She had only one demand for the job. “I said I would never go to California with them,” she says, expressing leeriness about transporting bees in heavy traffic.

Her vow not to travel to California didn’t last. She soon found herself on an airplane, summoned by Lee to fly to California to help him return a truck loaded with equipment while he transported the bees back to North Dakota.

By 2012, Lee retired, selling the business to his longtime employee, and Marie named the new venture Bee Unique Honey.

Overcoming colony collapse
But just a year later, the business suffered a catastrophic colony collapse. Varroa mites had invaded the hives and viruses were taking advantage of the weakened bees. Marie lost about 75% of her bees.

“It was very stressful because you still had contracts to fill,” Marie says.

She invested in brood frames filled with eggs, and purchased mated queens to repopulate the hives and recover the business.

“It was a big learning experience. We put in really long days trying to build those bees back up,” she says. “The next year, we were still building back up.”

Today, Marie utilizes the North Dakota Department of Agriculture’s hive inspection service. When requested by the beekeeper, the inspections look for pests and diseases.

“You always lose a percentage of bees. If you can stay under that percentage, you’re pretty happy. You have to keep the girls healthy. That’s the main thing,” she says. “I don’t want to go through a crash again.”

Keeping the bees alive is the biggest challenge, Marie says. Bees are moved from state to state and often commingle with other hives, which puts them at risk.

“Just like any other animal, you take care of them and they take care of you,” Marie says.

“We’re constantly striving for good bee health,” says Will Nissen, president of the  North Dakota Beekeepers Association. Owner of Five Star Honey Farms in Minot, N.D., Nissen has 12,000 hives, and his three sons are also beekeepers.

Keeping up with beekeeping
“Beekeeping’s changed so much in the last 10 years as far as what it takes to keep a hive alive and be successful,” Nissen says. “We’re learning more and more. Us beekeepers have put a lot of money into research. When you think you know everything about bees, you don’t know nothing. It’s like having 12,000 individual families. Things are constantly changing.”

With nine seasonal employees (all relatives except one), Bee Unique Honey is now back to full strength. The crew brings supers filled with honey from the hives into the processing facility in August and September. The frames are “uncapped” in a process in which the wax is removed, exposing the honey. Placed in an extraction unit, centrifugal force is used to spin the honey from the frames. The honey is then piped to a vat and transferred to totes.

The apiary processes 25-28 barrels a day. Byproducts of wax and slum, which is castoff dead bees and wax, along with old frames are all sold to a company in Nebraska which processes it further.

“There is no waste,” Marie says.

During the summer, the bees are placed in about 75 different locations in southwestern North Dakota. There, they feed on alfalfa and canola, producing golden honey which is sold to honey buyers in Kansas and Minnesota. Marie knows that some of her product is used in Honey Nut Cheerios.

“Around here, my landowners are all really good. People ask me to put bees on their land,” Marie says. The location of registered hives is logged with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, so agricultural producers can alert the beekeepers before spraying in the area.

“The aerial sprayers all call me up and tell me what they’re spraying and they’ll give me 48 hours. Everybody around here is really good,” she says.

“If we just follow the rules, we get along quite well,” Nissen says. Beekeepers must be licensed with the state and must notify the North Dakota Department of Agriculture about the location of hives.

In 2017, North Dakota had 292 registered beekeepers, with 615,391 hives, according to the N.D. Department of Agriculture. In 2016, North Dakota produced 37.83 million pounds of honey valued at more than $65 million. North Dakota is ranked as the top honey-producing state in the nation.

Working together
But North Dakota beekeepers must partner with agriculture producers in other states, too.

In the winter, a portion of Marie’s bees are taken to potato storage units in Idaho, where they hibernate under monitored temperatures. The rest go to California.

“When you don’t see them over the winter months, you’re nervous. How are they going to come back?” she says.

Marie travels to California three times a year to either feed the bees or relocate them from the pasture where they spend most of the winter. In January, the bees are moved into almond orchards just as the trees are budding. The bees work in the almond orchards as pollinators for about three weeks, then are moved back to a pasture in California. From there, some are sent to the state of Washington to pollinate apples, cherries, peaches and apricots.

Her trepidation about going to California has passed, as she spends a total of about two months in the state tending to her bees.

“You make really good friends with the other beekeepers,” she says.

When the bees return to North Dakota, they are fed with food-grade syrup until they start producing honey again. Each hive can produce anywhere from 65 to 100 pounds of honey, though this summer’s drought affected production.

“In July, there wasn’t a whole lot out there because it was so dry,” Marie says. Overall, beekeepers have witnessed loss of habitat across the state as alfalfa and clover acreage has decreased, Nissen says.

The market for honey is on an upswing, but still less than 2012’s prices, Marie says. Buyers visit the apiary, which must meet a lengthy checklist of requirements.

Marie credits her husband and children for their support in her endeavor, but she vividly remembers her first day on the job when she got her first bee sting on her lower lip.

“I hid in the bedroom and I didn’t come out. You couldn’t see my bottom lip. I called in sick the next day. Now, I don’t swell up at all,” she says. “You have to be patient around bees and calm. If we’re out working, usually about 4 p.m., they get really grumpy and they let you know. Or if there’s a storm coming and you can’t see it, you know something’s up just by how they act.”

Although Lee Hoff passed away two years ago, Marie is grateful for his mentorship.

“Lee was good. He gave me a chance. I wish he was still around to see how it’s gone,” she says. “It’s been good, I have to say. I’m glad things turned out how they did.”

Dart writes from Elgin, N.D.

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