WOLSEY — Find any clover patch this time of year, and you’re likely to discover it a buzz with a variety of insects busy gathering the plentiful harvest of pollen. And hopefully, among those insects you’ll see the Western Honey Bee.
First brought to North America by the Europeans in 1622, this tenacious, miniature workhorse now occupies every continent in the world except Antarctica, and is the single most important pollinator in agriculture globally.
According to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture there are 185 beekeepers in the state, 100 of which produce at the larger commercial level. In 2008, the state ranked second in the nation by producing 21,375,000 pounds of highly desirable alfalfa-sweet clover honey, with an estimated value of $28,643,000.
But just as impressive, is the impact these pollinating marvels have on agriculture itself. Honey bees are responsible for almost 80% of all crop pollination and without them, farmers and consumers alike could potentially face a great loss.
Wolsey Honey, a locally owned honey production operation,was purchased by Scott Brown in 2014 from Bill Rhodes, and has become a valuable asset in this vast web of commercial beekeepers nationwide. He and his son, Trent Brown and their crew, work with over 3600 hives spending the summer months focused on areas between Tulare and Tripp, and from West Gann Valley to southwest of Mitchell.
Trent Brown, who has been working with bees for the last fourteen years, has acquired a great deal of knowledge and respect for these industrious insects. “Bees are very intelligent, they have their own little civilization going on,” Brown said, “and collectively as a group, operate much like the human brain does. ”Domesticated bees practice what is referred to as flower fidelity. They are able to concentrate on one specific species or crop at a time, paying little to no attention to other distractions. When they have worked that particular crop, they will move on to the next. “Bumble bees on the other hand, have a very short attention span and non-indiscriminately bounce from one plant to the next - big bodies, little brains.” remarked Brown.
As winter approaches, the bees are packed up and hauled to Beeville, Texas. From there they travel to California to work in the almond groves during the bloom period. The bees are also moved from Texas across to Yumatilla, near Indian River, Florida, where they make Brazilian Pepper-tree honey. The Brazilian Pepper-tree is considered a nuisance plant by many, but a new study suggests that this invasive species has remarkable medicinal qualities and may possibly be the key component in treating MRSA and several other pathogens.
In Jacksonville, the bees work in the gallberry patches, a small evergreen holly bush that produces a unique, amber colored honey, quite popular in the Southern states. A small number of bees will work in the blueberry fields, while the majority will be moved to the larger orange blossom groves. In May, they are transported back to South Dakota to work the clover, alfalfa, and sunflower fields.
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the drastic die-off of honey bee colonies and the probable causes. In 2013, Colony Collapse Disorder had been responsible for the loss of more than 10 million beehives, twice the normal rate. And although there have been several possible explanations for CCD, so far no single trigger has been widely accepted by the scientific community.
Suggested causes include infections from the Varroa and Acarapis mites (no bigger than a pinhead, foulbrood, a disease that destroys the larvae, malnutrition, genetic factors, immunodeficiency, loss of habitat, beekeeping practices, or perhaps a combination of them all.
But there are other factors drawing a great deal of suspicion. Herbicides, pesticides, growth regulators and certain genetically modified crops are among the possible culprits. This rings true for the Brown family who has experienced it first hand. Brown’s grandmother began working with bees for Roger Bailey Enterprises in Fairmont, Neb. In 1987, his father, Scott Brown, joined the company at McCool, but eventually relocated the hives to Wolsey in an attempt to escape a pesticide called Pencap-M, that was being extensively used to combat the Western Corn Root-worm. Now banned, this pesticide was linked to not only killing the rabbits and pheasants in Nebraska, but the bee population, as well.
”It’s not difficult to determine what’s going on,” Brown said, “all we have to do is test the enzymes in the honey for any substances that shouldn’t be there. These chemical companies have known about these hazards since 2004, but because pesticide use translates into big revenue, they have been reluctant to admit it.”
The state of South Dakota has recognized the potential dangers of pesticide use in relation to bees and encourages ground applicators using field sprayers to notify the area beekeepers before spraying.
Brown has a few suggestions of his own.
“We need to make sure that local utility companies and county weed control personnel are trained in properly using these products and understand the potential problems they cause. They need to realize that the clover, alfalfa and wildflowers growing in the ditches are food for the bees. What we sometimes interpret and classify as weeds, the bees view as their livelihood.”
This Western Honey Bee provides an invaluable service to the world’s food producers and is facing an uncertain future.
Trent Brown of Wolsey Honey, discusses the business behind raising bees and his concern for their future.