South Dakota beekeepers facing industry’s ‘darkest days’

Honeybee hives owned by Adee Honey Farms were set out to forage in the grasslands near Bruce, S.D., on a recent day. Adee Honey Farms is one of the largest beekeeping operations in the world and manages between 75,000 and 85,000 hives annually. 

SD News Watch photo by Bart Pfankuch

South Dakota beekeepers — among the largest players in the U.S. pollination and honey industries — are reeling from a nationwide spike in honeybee colony losses that has the potential to affect 90 different agricultural crops across the country and could raise the price of fruit, vegetables, and nuts if the problem gets worse.

In 2018, the state’s beekeepers brought in more than $23 million from the sale of honey from roughly 255,000 hives. South Dakota ranked fourth in the nation in terms of honey production that year. But declining numbers of bees, both domestic and wild, threatens yields on crops ranging from almonds and apples on the West Coast to cotton and cranberries in the East. 

For more than a decade, beekeepers in South Dakota and around the country have been fighting against historically high colony loss rates of nearly 30 percent each year. Still, last year’s 40 percent colony loss rate was a blow to beekeepers. Despite years of intensive research and countless hours of work to reverse the tide, bees continue to struggle. Tim Hollmann, a beekeeper from Dante, S.D. a few miles south of Wagner near the Yankton Sioux Reservation, said much of the problem comes down to what bees eat. Farmers have plowed up more pastures to plant row crops such as corn and soybeans, and they’ve gotten better at killing flowering plants like milkweed and sweet clover in and around their fields, leaving less pollen and nectar for bees to consume. The pesticides and fungicides commonly used in modern agriculture also have been shown to make bees more susceptible to disease, if not killing them outright.  

Wild bee populations have also suffered. In 2017, the rusty patched bumble bee became the first native bee species in the lower 48 states to be placed on the federal endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Non-governmental conservation groups have said 346 other species of native bees also are threatened. 

In all, bees pollinate about 90 crops in the U.S. and account for up $19 billion in added value to the country’s agriculture industry annually, according to the USDA. Without pollination from bees, many of whom are trucked around the country from their summer home in South Dakota to provide pollination services, experts worry the price of common food items such as strawberries and apples could rise.

Commercial beekeepers say official data undercount the loss of commercial bee colonies. Bret Adee, co-owner of Adee Honey Farms in Bruce, S.D., one of the largest commercial beekeeping operations in the world, said some commercial keepers lost 70 percent or more of their bees last winter. 

Adee said his company lost so many bees that the business was forced to shutter its beekeeping operation in Nebraska and lay off employees. Prior to last year, the business kept bees in Nebraska for 60 years, Bret Adee said.

“We didn’t have enough bees in our boxes,” he said. 

Honey produced from South Dakota’s sweet clover, alfalfa and wildflowers is highly prized for its mild flavor and light color. Unfortunately, per-hive production has fallen about 50 percent over the past 15 to 20 years, said Bret Adee’s brother and business partner, Kelvin Adee. Total U.S. honey production has dropped by about half, falling from 250 million pounds to about 150 million pounds annually, he said.

“We’re kind of in the darkest days of the industry right now,” he said. 

High bee colony loss rates aren’t new to the industry. Since 2006, the U.S. has averaged a nearly 30 percent colony loss rate among its domestic bees, according to the Bee Informed Partnership. 

“Any business that has a 30% annual loss rate, that’s getting to be unsustainable,” said John Stolle, a beekeeper near Sturgis and president of the South Dakota Honey Producers Association.

Stolle’s bees spend their summers making honey in the grasslands and hay fields north of the Black Hills. The bees find plenty of pollen and nectar there and can lay in plenty of honey for the winter. That allows them to recover their strength, even after Stolle takes his cut of honey to sell to such end users as Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City. Like many beekeepers, Stolle loads his hives onto flatbed trailers in the fall, covers them in a net and trucks them to wintering grounds in California. They make some honey there too, but mostly the move is to avoid cold weather and to be in place for almond pollination in February, Stolle said.

Adee Honey Farms tries to keep between 75,000 and 85,000 hives going at any given time, said Kelvin Adee, who also serves as president of the American Honey Producers Association said. 

Bret Adee spends his year traveling back and forth between Bruce, S.D., where his father founded Adee Honey Farms in 1959, and Bakersfield, Calif., where the Adees’ bees help pollinate the state’s roughly $7.1 billion annual almond crop.

The Adees pegged recent colony losses at closer to 60 or 70 percent. 

Fall and winter of 2019 will be especially telling, he said. 

“If it’s anything like last year, the industry will be in a death spiral,” Bret Adee said. 

Jay Fatland, a life-long beekeeper from Kimball who provided honey as a flavoring for “The Original Kimball Popcorn Ball,” has wound down his beekeeping efforts over the last few years. Losing so many bees each year just got to be too hard to handle, he said.

“It’s just a struggle to keep the bees alive anymore,” Fatland said.

He’s down to about 200 hives now and is mostly retired from the business that was his sole source of income for more than 30 years.

Wild bees are also showing marked declines. Until the late 1990s, the rusty patched bumble bee was a fairly common visitor to backyard tomato gardens and wildflowers in South Dakota and 22 other states. Now, the bee has probably been eliminated from South Dakota and can only be found in 13 states plus one Canadian province, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There isn’t much historical population data on the more than 4,000 native bee species in North America. One of the few comprehensive reports on the continent’s native bee population was published in 2017 by the Center for Biological Diversity. The report found that there was sufficient data to assess the population of about 1,400 bee species. Roughly half those species were declining and 347 of them were determined to be threatened, the report said.

Declining native bee populations also pose a big problem to anyone who buys food. While domestic honey bees are pretty good at pollinating some crops such as almonds and canola, they aren’t so great with such things as squash, said Amanda Bachmann, an urban entomologist with the South Dakota State University Extension Service. Instead, native squash bees handle most of the squash pollination duties.

No one has been able to pinpoint a single cause for the widespread devastation of honeybees or native bees. Instead, a combination of factors is at play in the beehives themselves and in the fields where the bees look for pollen and nectar. 

One of the biggest problems facing bees in South Dakota is a drastic change toward production of corn and soybeans – two of the worst crops for bees.

Hollmann, the beekeeper from Dante, said the problem with corn and soybeans is two-fold. First, the fields tend to be devoid of any plant life other than corn or soybeans, thanks to the use of glyphosate herbicides such as Roundup. The second problem with corn and soybean fields is pesticides. 

The increased number of corn and soybean acres also limits locations bees can find food in South Dakota. Since 2008, 42 percent of the land South Dakota farmers had enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program have been taken out of the program and often converted to row crop production. 

Hollmann, who keeps some of his bees in Iowa, said the reduction of CRP lands, as well as the loss of weeds along fence rows and in ditches near farm fields in that state, has been devastating. 

Hollmann is a member of the Sioux City-based Sioux Honey Cooperative. He said southeastern South Dakota and northwest Iowa used to be “God’s country” for honey production. There was relatively stable weather and plenty of forage available between alfalfa, hay, ditches and fence rows, he said. Now, beekeepers are having to move west to central South Dakota and beyond where the habitat is better and safer but good honey production only comes when the weather cooperates.  

 “We call it feast or famine territory,” Holmann said.

Fungicides are another man-made threat to bees. Fungicides sprayed on crops to increase yields are then picked up by foraging bees and carried back to hives. 

Despite all the problems caused by chemicals and habitat loss, the USDA has identified a parasite as the biggest threat facing bees. Varroa destructor has been ravaging North American bee hives for decades. The mite first was found in the U.S. in 1987. South Dakota, as a top honey producing state, was infested with the mites soon after.  Varroa destructor is native to Asia and acts similar to a tick. The mite attaches to a bee and sucks out the bee’s bodily fluids, weakening the host and making it more susceptible to disease and starvation when food runs low. 

Several exotic honey bee parasites and diseases have made their way into the United States since the 1980s. Small hive beetles from Africa, wax moths, European foulbrood and Israeli acute paralysis virus are just a few examples of foreign diseases that have been inadvertently imported over the last 30 years. 

Even with all the doom and gloom surrounding the beekeeping industry, domestic honey bees are in no immediate danger of extinction. The people who harvest bees for pollination and sell honey are the ones in trouble. 

“We’re not at a tipping point yet, but we’re getting there,” Stolle said.

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