OTTERTAIL -- When Dan Whitney opens the lid on one of his hundreds of honey bee hives scattered throughout Otter Tail County, he knows right away what to do.
Over the last 30 years, Whitney’s skills as a beekeeper have kept him in the business even with a shifting market, and collapsing colonies.
Whitney got his start in beekeeping in the late ‘80s during summers off from high school and college working for Jack and Russell Hoffman in Richville.
In 1994, Whitney bought out 1,000 colonies from a retiring beekeeper near West Silent Lake. Just like that, Whitney became one of about 1,500 commercial beekeepers in the U.S.
Each colony is made up of about 50,000 bees, with the queen laying 1000 eggs each day during the summer.
An individual colony can produce about 100 pounds of honey each season, depending on where the hive is located.
Buckwheat honey is made in August when nothing else is blooming. Then there’s clover honey which comes from Alfalfa in North Dakota and western Minnesota. Whitney then mixes this with wildflower honey from Smoky Hills State Forest in Becker County.
Each year, Whitney’s bees produce between 275 to 300 drums of honey.
Even with all that honey, Whitney and other commercial beekeepers are feeling the effects of foreign imports flooding the market.
Minnesota Honey Producers Association Vice President Mark Sundberg said imported honey is badly depressing the market.
“Big grocery store chains want the lowest price possible,” Whitney said.
This has pushed the market towards cheap honey that is sometimes blended with artificial sweeteners.
Whitney claims cheap, imported honey from Asia, Eastern Europe and South America has lowered the price of his product by 70 cents over the last 18 months.
Sundberg said it’s important for American consumers to know where their honey comes from, and prioritize buying domestic honey.
Whitney said he’s doing everything he can to make money, but like so many in agriculture, he’s turned to belt tightening mode.
“I don’t want to run more colonies. We almost need to make 135 pounds per colony just to barely break even.” he said. “We’re trying to move away from relying on honey crop.”
Queen of the beehive
One way Whitney makes up for his losses is by raising breeder queens. Raising queens is a specialty that Whitney estimates only about 150 beekeepers do nationally.
From his winter outpost in Newton, Texas, Whitney raises 25,000 unhatched queen cells and 4,000 mated queens which are then shipped to beekeepers all over the country.
Whitney is also considering raising queens in the summer, because of increased demand.
“They just don’t last,” he said. “Guys are re-queening constantly.”
Whitney’s work wouldn’t be possible without help from three apprentices from Honduras, whom he hired through the H2A visa program.
Whitney said they knew barely nothing when he first hired them three years ago, now they’ve become integral to his production cycle.
Each spring, Whitney makes his way back to Minnesota with three semi-trucks loaded with bee hives. Whitney expects to lose one load each summer to disease and lack of food. The remaining bees are sent to California in November to cultivate the almond orchards, while the rest come back down to Texas.
Sundberg says it was possible to exclusively sell honey, but now he doesn’t know any commercial producer who isn’t pollinating or selling queens.
Whitney said he’s lucky he’s able to sell queens, otherwise it would mean raising more colonies for almond cultivation.
“We’re doing everything we can to make money,” Whitney said. “Pollination is the only way we’re surviving in the industry, because it’s the one thing other countries can’t come in and take the market share away.”
Whitney said it’s hard for people around here to understand, because of the climate, but pollination is the key to everything. Come fall, anything that has a flower requires pollination, including plums, grapes, cherries, apples, blueberries and cucumbers.
“I have beekeeping friends on the coasts that are pollinating five to seven crops a year,” he said.
Each individual colony takes an immense amount of work to keep healthy. Whitney works each hive on an individual basis, often visiting 200 to 300 hives each day. An old and failing queen is treated like a cow-calf unit, with the survival of the colony depending on the queen, because a week hive won’t make money.
In the past, each hive might go two to three weeks without being tended to, but that number has fallen to every eight or nine days.
“We’re constantly going around doing little things,” Whitney said. “They’re not a fire and forget missile, you don’t realize they’re sick initially.”
By the time a colony is showing signs of stress, it’s often too late. Whitney stays proactive in each hive by using essential oils, vitamins, probiotics and physically manipulating the frames.
Whitney said there’s no smoking gun to why bee populations are declining, but the problem could be helped with bee specific flowers.
“We used to go out 30 to 40 miles, now we’re going out 100 miles to chase the flowers,” Whitney said. “It’s either urban or heavy agriculture.”
With only a small window of blooming plants each season, Whitney needs to feed his colonies by hand. If a colony lacks food, it’s harder to detoxify and bounce back from environmental stressors.
“Now I lose more bees in the summer than in the winter,” Whitney said. “It’s just wrong to lose more bees when things are blooming.”
Forty-four percent of all colonies in Minnesota were lost last year, according to data from Bee Informed Partnership.
Whitney says Minnesota lacks the right kind of flowers for honey bees. While bees can get pollen off of wildflowers, they can’t get nectar.
“If you want to help honey bees, you need to plant honey bee specific forage,” he said.
The University of Minnesota Bee Squad recommends planting native plants that germinate quickly and adapt to the soil. These species include ground plum, lanceleaf tickweed, and calico american aster.
Working with bees day in and day out obviously means stings come on a frequent basis, often 20 times a day if he’s working without gloves.
“It’s no different than a carpenter, or mechanic. Whitney said. “If you’re working with your hands, you’re going to get them nicked.”