John Miller is a fourth-generation beekeeper who discovered a love for bees at the age of six. Today, he manages Miller Honey Farms, a thriving operation that produces some of North Dakota’s finest honey.
But the bees that call Miller Honey Farms home have more than one job to do. For a few months out of the year, Miller’s bees travel to California and Washington to pollinate almond and apple orchards.
Tale as Old as Time
“The partnership between landowners and beekeepers is as old as beekeeping and agriculture,” Miller says. “For hundreds of years in America, farmers have welcomed beekeepers onto their property because they recognize bees provide beneficial services for all the stone fruits, vine crops, legumes, fruits, vegetables and nuts.”
Similarly, beekeepers have understood for years that without a farmer to husband the crops, honey bees would starve.
“When we go grocery shopping, we go to the store,” Miller says. “When a honey bee alights from the hive, she’s also grocery shopping. But unlike us, she’s flying in the local landscape.”
A New Era of Beekeeping
It all sounds charming and romantic, harkening back to the days when our ancestors lived exclusively off the land. But today, things are a little different – both for the average American and the humble honey bee.
Between the increasing acres of row crops and loss of conservation lands, North Dakota has seen a sharp increase in hive mortality and decrease in per-hive honey production. And it’s impacting more than commercial beekeepers.
Walking into a grocery store, consumers are immediately confronted with rows upon rows of food. They can fill your cart in minutes. The honey bee doesn’t share this luxury.
“Honey bees have an intimate and personal relationship with the supply of food in their neighborhood,” Miller says.
While a field of corn may fill the bellies of hungry humans, it offers no nutrition to a honey bee. Instead of stopping to fill her grocery cart, so to speak, she’s forced to move on – and she’ll continue searching until she finds the nutrients she needs to thrive.
“Americans aren’t confronted with obstacles like that,” Miller says. “Our food is cheap, readily available and in supersize abundance.”
Because honey bees are critical to crop pollination, their decline impacts agriculture in the western territories and the rest of the world.
The Bee Integrated Project
“We’ve been involved in the Bee Integrated Project since its founding,” Browning says. “BIP is the first successful effort in North Dakota to bring science to the bee yard.”
The group brings together beekeepers and landowners to support bee health with better science and management practices. One of the most important factors, Browning says, is habitat.
“Diverse natural forage is the most basic component in maintaining healthy, productive hives,” Browning says. “Honey bees love sweet clover, alfalfa, sunflowers and buckwheat.”
Partnering beekeepers with farmers who are invested in improving hive conditions through better agricultural practices gives the honey bee a good shot at making a comeback.
A Lasting Partnership
Also involved in the Bee Integrated Project, Miller says the real champion is the farmer who agrees to take a parcel of his land out of normal production to further hive health research.
This age-old camaraderie between beekeepers and farmers gives the western honey bee a fighting chance to not only survive, but to thrive for years to come.
“There’s a link between beekeepers who leave plenty of honey in the hive for winter,” Miller says, “and the farmers who leave some crop in the field for the wildlife.”