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Business is buzzing

Posted 6/02/15 (Tue)

Business is buzzing

By John D. Taylor
Dave Huelsman parks his gray Chevy pickup in a honeybee “consolidation yard,” a corner of land near Wildrose owned by Tony Rivers, where a full semi-truck load of honeybees and their hives, recently returned from their work pollinating California almond groves and Washington state apple orchards, now await their next mission – pollinating Divide County crops and making honey.
Huelsman is the scion of a beekeeping family, people who make their living working with bees. Huelsman, his wife Laurie, his son Joe and his daughter-in-law, Vanessa, even his grandson, Jonas, just back from college, earn all or part of their living from beekeeping in one way or another.
Huelsman and Joe are full-time beekeepers. They currently manage more than 5,000 beehives and must, like any other agricultural producer, deal with the ups and downs of a business based on nature, weather, animals and all of the vagaries associated with these things.
Their principal income comes from using their bees as pollinators for crop producers in California, Washington and North Dakota. They also produce raw honey – honey Vanessa, the retail end of their operation, packages and sells as Northern Lights honey, found in a number of local retail outlets.
Beginnings
Back in the early 1990s, Dave Huelsman was working for the city of Wildrose, but he wasn’t exactly happy. He loved to hunt with a bow, and really wanted to be outdoors, working in the countryside, not cooped up in a shop in town.
In 1992, he met a kindred spirit, Wildrose beekeeper Jim Fortier.
Fortier shared his archery and hunting interests, and over time they became friends, with Fortier introducing Huelsman to beekeeping.
Shortly thereafter, Huelsman quit his city job to work with Fortier as beekeeper and business partner. At their peak, Huelsman and Fortier operated some 5,500 hives spread across northwestern North Dakota.
In 2007, Huelsman bought Fortier’s business, which had shrunk considerably, down to about 1,000 hives, adding 400 of his own hives.
Since then, Huelsman has made an effort to rebuild hive numbers and ramp up to Fortier’s previous level. He’s getting close at 5,000-plus hives.
Seasons of a beekeeper
“I have no regrets about getting into this,” Huelsman said.
“It’s lots of work, any ag work is lots of work,” he said. “In the winter it’s taking bees to California and Washington for pollination. That starts when we ship them out in November. I can take the month of December off, but then it’s out there and lots of work. We’re trucking 11 semi-truck loads of bees to California.”
“In the spring, it’s all about the increase,” Huelsman said.
The increase is a beekeeper’s method of dividing his bees up into different hives to keep each hive full, focused on producing more young bees, to increase his overall bee numbers.
Huelsman does this because some 40 to 47 percent of his bees currently die annually, primarily due to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a disease Huelsman believes is spread by the mites, tiny insects, living on bees.
Colony collapse has hit honeybee numbers hard for the last several years, and many worry that honeybees may be dying out. This concerns biologists who wonder what creature will step in to fill their role as pollinators, especially for important agricultural crops.
In order to keep pace with these losses and keep the hives full, Huelsman must replenish his hives with 3,500 queen bees annually.
“Without a queen they don’t produce,” he said.
Huelsman’s bees are mostly an Italian subspecies. He prefers Italian queens because they are gentler and more docile, easier to handle, than other species.
“There are many species of honeybees -- Bucktail, Carolians -- a lot. But I like the Italians,” he said.
A consolidation yard is the place where the arranging and rearranging of the hives takes place, to get bees ready for summer and honey production. It’s important to get the bees out of these yards, because they don’t do well there, and into their summer areas.
Summer, Huelsman said, is all about maintaining hives, making sure he has enough bees to make it into next year.
Fall – August, September and October – is honey harvest time.
His daughter-in-law, Vanessa, buys some of the honey he produces, bottles it for retail sales and markets this as Northern Lights honey.
Then the cycle begins anew.
An expensive business
“Beekeeping is an expensive business,” Huelsman said.
His 3,500 queens cost $22 each – and they’re shipped via U.S. mail – an $80,000 bill annually.
Trucking his bees to and from California costs $50,000 annually.
Then there’s spreading his hives out to the 100 locations across Divide, Burke, Williams and Mountrail counties that use his services as pollinators. Huelsman said Divide and Williams counties contain his biggest clients.
He spends $120,000 per year feeding his bees a high fructose corn syrup, a replacement food for the honey the bees produce.
Thrice annual anti-CCD medications at $5 each for 5,000 hives, pollen tablets that boost the bees’ immune systems, and other items also add up.
Huelsman recoups his costs and earns his money in the fees he gets for his bees pollinating crops, as well as from the honey they produce.
Alfalfa, hay and canola are three important crops his bees pollinate in Divide County.
“We benefit farmers a lot,” he said.
Satisfaction
“The bees really keep us,” Huelsman said, watching a honeybee fly through the air and smiling.
“I enjoy what I do. I enjoy being out in the country – I couldn’t stand the shop – being my own boss, just being here.”
Huelsman sees the world in terms of bee pastures, much like a rancher would see land as cattle pastures. He seeks these better pastures for his bees, because good nutrition makes for stronger bees, mores resistant to CCD.
Huelsman talked about being able to watch the natural magic of bees being bees, too.
Bees share everything, Huelsman said. The whole hive will gather to a source of food, and bees literally dance – a circle of fancy steps, bisected by a line that points right at the patch of flowers or pollen-laden plants they came from -- to show other bees how to find this food source.
Beekeepers don’t know how, but bees also orient themselves to their hive location. Huelsman said if you move a hive a little as a few yards away from the location the bees have locked in on, the bees will return to the original location, where their hive should be, not the new location of a hive.
His bees love clover, alfalfa, canola, thistle, dandelion and buck brush.