Searching for a sweet spot
Lloyd Zietlow pulls a frame full of bees out of a box. Zietlow is one of the top honey producers in western South Dakota. (Kristina Barker, Journal staff)

In South Dakota, honey is queen. In 2007, beekeepers in the state produced 13.26 million pounds of it worth $12.33 million. Those figures rank South Dakota third behind North Dakota and California as one of the nation's top honey producers.

South Dakota honey - derived from the flowers of sweet clover and alfalfa plants - is also highly sought after for its mild flavor and light color.

But behind the buzz, the bees aren't thriving.

In fact, yields are down considerably. Two years ago, South Dakota beekeepers (also known as apiarists) produced 17.3 million pounds of honey; in 2000, they made 28.4 million pounds.

Drought, mites, pesticides, possibly cell phones and now a mysterious condition known as "colony collapse disorder" (CCD), have all been linked to significant bee death and honey decline.

As a result, most serious and commercial apiarists in the upper Midwest have been forced to expand their operations into more than just honey.

One popular option is to take their show on the road. In the off-season (November through April), many honeybees are switched from full-time honey producers to hired pollinators on crops in California, Texas and Washington.

The aid of honeybees as pollinators can dramatically increase crop yields. Some foods, such as almonds, blueberries and cranberries, are almost entirely dependent on the insects' assistance. Furthermore, it has been estimated that one-third of the human diet is affected by honeybees through their pollination of fruits, vegetables and legumes to feed cattle.

Lloyd Zietlow, a Rapid City-based beekeeper, switched the bulk of his operation to pollination 16 years ago. Now he trucks around 24,000 hives - his own bees and some leased from other apiarists - to almond orchards in California each fall.

Although Zietlow still has 5,000 hives in Pennington, Custer, Meade and Haakon counties during the summer, virtually none of the honey he produces stays in state. The market is already overcrowded and demand is low. Instead, he ships it in bulk to Lancaster, Penn., where it is blended with other types of honey and packaged.

"We used to make the bulk of our income - 100 percent of it, actually - in South Dakota," Zietlow said. "Now we're only making 25 percent of it here."

Other apiarists - in similarly sticky situations - also have turned to alternative means to make ends meet.

Chris and Terry Baldwin own South Beekota, a company that sells raw honey and beeswax candles and offers bee yard tours of its Belvidere colonies.

Chris Baldwin also breeds and sells "Russian" honeybees, a specially imported variety purported to be resistant to mites. He started raising them after he tired of combating the increasingly resistant varroa mites with pesticides.

"We've actually been able to get away from chemical use in the bees," Baldwin said. "They're (the honeybees) not perfect, but I'm not worrying about mites all the time."

Attempting to keep things natural is a popular trend in bee byproducts. Burt's Bees has built its empire on it, and Mitch and Lisa Irion are trying to do the same.

The Irions of Spearfish started Black Hills Honey Farm in 2001 after Mitch lost his job when the Homestake gold mine closed. The two had no experience in beekeeping but knew they were in a good location and decided to give it a try.

Although they also sell honey in bulk, the Irions have focused primarily on creating all-natural health products from beeswax and honey. Among their more popular items are the hand salves and lip balm. Lisa perfects the recipes at home and then bottles and packages them herself.

Lisa says the business has taken off and the company now has its products in stores as far away as Maine and Alaska.

"I think more people want to be natural," Lisa said. "They know that everything you put on your skin goes into your system."

But even with additional ventures outside of honey, the Baldwins and Irions still have to move their honeybees south for the winter.

Though no one is entirely sure, that mass movement could be part of what's causing problems with CCD.

"We spend about six months on the road and the bees get moved around a lot, where before they used to sit on the same spot for 35 years," Zietlow said.

"They really don't get to set up their house and stay for a very long time."

Zietlow believes that stress from the near-constant movement could be one reason for the dramatic hive losses in the last few years. He also points to commercial farming for eliminating bee food and habitat, and for spraying herbicides.

Even beekeepers can be their own worst enemies when targeting mites with chemicals, Zietlow said.

"You're trying to deal with a bug on a bug and then you're trying to deal with a food product on top of that," Zietlow said.

Chris Baldwin also is concerned about the impact of CCD, although he hasn't yet attributed any personal losses to it yet.

"The average person looks around and sees blue sky and green grass, but we beekeepers are working on a nuts and bolts level with nature," Baldwin said. "The bees are having a really tough time."

Related to CCD or not, state apiarist Bob Reiners says 30 percent losses are now typical. He says commercial beekeepers in South Dakota are most concerned about finding a cause of CCD and a solution as soon as possible.

"A lot of them are on pins and needles; they're pretty worried," Reiners said.

When it comes to understanding CCD, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Companies such as Haagen-Dazs - whose ingredients rely heavily on pollination-dependent crops - and Burt's Bees have both pledged money to research. On July 17, the USDA also granted the University of Georgia $4.1 million to study the disorder.

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But outside of CCD, beekeepers still have a tough job. Each apiarist has his or her own horror story about dramatic losses or total wipeouts.

Three years ago, the Irions lost 90 percent of their bees in a hard stretch of the drought. They were forced to buy bees from Australia and have them shipped to San Francisco to keep their California contracts.

Chris and Terry Baldwin refer to July 15, 2006, as "Hot Saturday" - temperatures reached 115 degrees and they lost the majority of their bees.

And in a rather unusual turn of events earlier this year, Zietlow lost 64 hives to flooding.

"They were in a stock dam that had been dry all my life," Zietlow said. "But hey, I'll take that; that's not a problem. That much rain is good."

Zietlow's attitude seems to reflect that of many beekeepers in the area - doggedly determined and thoroughly in love with what they do.

"For me, I can't think of doing anything else. A desk job would not cut it. I like being outside; I don't care if I'm stuck in 4 feet of mud," Zietlow said.

"There are days - with 80 to 100 percent humidity in a bee suit -when I think, 'why am I doing this?' but I wouldn't replace it for anything. It's a great way of life."

Did you know?

y 2008 marks the 30th year of the honeybee as South Dakota's state insect.

y A hive of bees must fly 55,000 miles and tap 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey.

y The average honeybee will produce 1/12 teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.

y Honeybees fly 15 miles per hour.

y Eighty-percent of insect crop pollination is done by honeybees.

- Information provided by the National Honey Board

Contact Serri Graslie at 394-8401 or serri.graslie@rapid cityjournal.com.

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