Story & photos by Lura Roti, for Land & Livestock
Bret Adee relates beekeeping to cattle production.
“Raising bees is a lot like raising a herd of cattle. We’re always looking at the performance of a bee hive – its disease resistance and the amount of honey it produces,” says the third-generation beekeeper and co-owner of Adee Honey Farms.
Adee goes onto say that the primary difference between the two is in bees; beekeepers track the females instead of the males.
“The queens are what it’s all about, instead of bulls,” Adee says.
Adee learned the beekeeping trade from his father, Richard, who learned it from his father.
The family business got its start during the Great Depression when Richard’s dad, Vernon, was looking for a way to bring in some cash. Like many school teachers during the Depression, Vernon was paid in commodities — hogs, potatoes, eggs — so when his brother sent him a letter encouraging him to get into the honey business, he decided to give it a try.
“The letter read, ‘I can’t sell chickens or meat, but I’m selling honey.’ So he began selling honey to anyone he could,’” shares Bret of the family legacy that he, his brother Kevin and nephews continue today. “Grandpa said that although the family had food to eat, there were times when they needed to buy shoes for the kids. That’s how we got into bees.”
The family got serious about honey production in 1958 when Richard purchased a honey farm in Bruce from a retiring beekeeper. Today, three generations of Adees operate the family-owned wholesale honey business which employs 50 people year-round and sells honey by the semi load to packinghouses across the nation and Europe.
Drive down Main Street in Bruce and it is obvious that the rural community’s largest employer is appreciated. Yellow banners with smiling cartoon bees hang from street lamps and flyers promoting Bruce’s Honey Days are everywhere.
Although Bruce is home to Adee Honey Farms headquarters, the business keeps Adee and his family on the move.
During the summers Adee’s bee hives are spread out on farms and ranches across South Dakota, southern North Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska. As winter approaches, his hives are trucked to the deserts of California. In early spring, the bees are moved from the desert to California almond groves for contract pollination. Then, half are trucked down south for queen rearing and the remaining bees are trucked to Washington fruit orchards where growers contract with Adee Honey Farms to use their bees for pollination.
Again comparing beekeeping to cattle production, Adee says, like cattle shipped to feedlots in Oklahoma or Texas, bees overwinter better in warmer climates.
“Just like it takes more corn to keep cattle gaining weight in the northern climates. We’ve found it more profitable to move bees south so we can take more honey,” he says.
New Conservation Reserve Program good for bees
Honey is in high demand, says Adee, explaining that demand for honey in the United States far exceeds supply.
According to Adee, 150 million pounds of honey are produced each year in the U.S. however U.S. consumption of honey is close to 400 million pounds.
Adee says the biggest challenge Adee Honey Farms faces is finding homes for their hives.
When placing hives, Adee looks for areas where his bees have access to a diversity of forage options. Flowers are bees’ lifeblood, quality forage results in abundant honey production. Due to intensive spraying of thistle throughout the Midwest, Adee says locating quality forage is not an easy task.
“In our fight against thistle, we’ve gotten rid of a lot of wild plants and legumes that used to grow wild in ditches, on the prairie and wastelands,” he says, recalling the days when pastures were full of wild clover, alfalfa and vetch. “Today, the most abundant forage for bees is alfalfa and soybeans — that’s only two pollens. It’s like the difference between eating potatoes all the time and eating a healthy, diverse diet. Bees stay healthiest and their populations grow on a diet of diverse forages.”
The recent push from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for pollinator plants was welcome news for Adee and his family.
“I’m excited to see a resurgence of pollinator plants, not only for my bees, but in the interest of the environment as a whole,” says Adee, who planting a pollinator preserve on his own CRP ground this spring.
Harvesting the essence of summer
With his bees back home in the Midwest and honey harvest in full swing, Adee and his crews are busy visiting their bee yards and pulling honey. To harvest honey they take the top boxes from the hive. These contain honeycombs full of honey. They leave the bottom two boxes where the bees live.
“Just like most of nature, it’s all about conservation of energy. Bees live in the bottom boxes, storing honey above them so during the winter months the heat they give off preheats the meals above them,” he says, of the hording insect.
Adee explains that a bee’s diet consists of protein and carbohydrates. They get protein from plant pollen and their carbohydrates from a plant’s nectar which the bees convert into honey and store in honeycombs throughout the spring and summer months to sustain them through the winter.
Over the centuries, beekeepers figured out how to get bees to produce more honey —enough to sustain the bees and enough for us to enjoy.
“If their home gets crowded, they will swarm.”
When bees swarm part of the hive stays with the new queen, and the rest goes with the old queen to start a new hive. To keep the bees from swarming and to increase honey production, Adee adds more boxes to the top of the hive.
“Because their house isn’t crowded, we don’t lose our bee population to swarming and we get extra honey,” he says.
They will process the honeycombs they collect at either their Bruce or Roscoe facilities. To harvest honey from the honeycombs, the wax coating the honey is removed. Then the honeycombs are heated to 105 degrees and centrifuges are used to remove the honey without damaging the honeycomb.
“We try to conserve the bee’s energy. A little over a century ago, honey was squeezed out of the honeycomb, destroying it. Now we’re able to reuse the combs so the bees don’t have to make new ones,” Adee explains.
Every two years, Adee’s hives receive a new queen. As Adee stated, the success of a hive is based on the queen. Each hive has only one queen, and she lays between 1,800 and 2,000 eggs each day — which result in about 40,000 bees during the peak production months of spring and summer.
Of those 40,000 bees, a small portion will be drones — male bees — and most will be worker bees — female bees which did not receive royal jelly, and are therefore are underdeveloped and unable to reproduce.
To ensure the genetic diversity of her hive, the queen mates with several drones; killing them once she’s done mating so she won’t accidentally mate with the same drone twice.
When rearing the next generation of queens, Adee selects for disease resistance, production and gentleness.
“Beekeepers don’t like getting stung either,” he says laughing.
Adee’s brother, Kevin, does the queen rearing.
Once he’s selected the genetics he wants to propagate, he takes eggs from those specific queens and places them in a man-made queen cell; a plastic cell that is made with the same dimensions as a queen cell crafted in nature, which are larger than brood cells where the worker bees are raised.
“That way it can hold royal jelly,” says Adee, of the jelly-like substance worker bees only feed to the queen egg, which allows its reproductive organs to develop.
The queen cell is then placed in a hive that has had its queen removed, and the next generation of Adee bees begins taking care of its future.
Try Award-Winning Honey Recipes from the Bruce Honey Days Honey Cook-Off
To receive Honey Cook-Off Recipes, send a check for $5 to the Bruce Community Club, along with your mailing address. The $5 covers shipping, handling and the cookbook. Be sure to try Alice Adee’s “Bruce Honey Days Honey Fudge Sauce.”