Beekeepers Fight to Keep Industry Alive |

Beekeepers Fight to Keep Industry Alive

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News
A honeybee dives into a Prairie Pasque flower in pursuit of nectar. Photo courtesy Christian Begeman

Small but mighty: honeybees. These tiny insects are wired to do one of the most amazing processes in nature, flying from their hives to collect nectar from flowers and returning to store the end product, delicious and nutritious honey, safely away in their honeycomb. The midwestern states are top producers in the US honey industry, with North Dakota and South Dakota typically maintaining a lead in the top three.

Consumption of honey in the US has dramatically increased over the last twenty years, while honeybee population and production of honey has decreased. What factors are involved in this changing picture? Simultaneously, beekeepers are facing declining prices, prices below their cost of production.

What is behind it?

“Our beekeepers are really getting beat up on prices,” said Bob Reiners, an Apiary inspector and consultant with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture. “A year ago honey was at $1.90/lb. Now it’s maybe $1. IF you can find somebody to buy it.”

That’s a big if. There are a limited number of large honey packers in the US, and they’re not buying. Roughly 600 million pounds of honey was consumed in the US in 2019; this includes everything from industrial uses such as Honey-Nut Cheerios to table grade honey. US producers supplied approximately 162 million pounds of honey. Yet the US imported 600 million pounds of honey in 2019.

“We need imports to keep up with the demand for honey,” said Eric Andress, a second generation honey producer who runs Grand River Honey Company out of Hettinger, North Dakota. “The problem is that most of the ‘honey’ coming in is not honey. Forty-seven percent of the honey we import is adulterated with foreign sugars, typically rice syrup.”

US produced honey must pass rigorous tests to make sure it’s not contaminated with chemicals or adulterated with other substances. Honey coming in at the ports is not subject to the same scrutinization.

“We are working with customs to do more testing both for Country of Origin and adulteration,” said Kelvin Adee, a beekeeper from Bruce, SD, and current president of North American Honey Producers. “Part of the problem is that the FDA isn’t super worried about it as long as nobody is getting sick and there are no health issues arising from this imported honey.”

Adee has spent plenty of time in Washington D.C. lobbying on behalf of the bee industry. He said that Congress did appropriate money for testing imported honey but getting the testing process in place will take time because they are building a US database with honey samples from countries all over the world to be used in the testing process. Some of the pollens from the flowers the bees visit stay in the honey and testing the pollen can identify the country that the honey came from.

“It is difficult getting a reliable test that the Chinese can’t fool,” Adee said. “Even the pollen test to determine which country the honey came from is not completely trustworthy because China will buy pollen from the US, grind it, and mix it into honey they export. Honey can also be tested to see if it contains antibiotics and chemicals that are used in other countries but we don’t use here, but when our industry figures out a new test, China tries to find ways to beat the test.

“The FDA says that if honey has been through resin filters it should not be labeled as honey. This process involves melting the honey, blending it with water and running it through an intense filtration process that removes chemical residues and pollen. You’re left with a syrup that is then dehydrated to remove the added water.”

This reconstituted honey is then blended with rice syrup, shipped to a country such as Taiwan or Vietnam that does not have US tariffs, relabeled, and shipped to US ports.

“Circumvention of tariffs is one of our biggest problems in the honey industry,” Andress said. “There is a tariff on honey coming in from China but the Chinese are going to great lengths to circumvent the law.”

Labeling is part of the problem as well. Adee said that the honey industry has not addressed labeling with the FDA for forty years.

“Packers are required to list the countries the honey is from, but not required to list them in any specific order,” he said. “The USA may be at the top of the list on a honey jar, but the jar may only contain 2% of honey produced in the United States.”

“The packer concentration may be worse in the honey industry than it is in the beef industry,” Bob Reiners said. “There are just a few packers controlling most of the honey processed in the US.”

“Packers margins are getting larger,” Adee said. “Seventy-five percent of the honey they process is imported product, and it’s questionable whether it is really honey or not.”

“Honey is coming into our ports at $0.60 per pound,” Andress said.

With cost of production around $2.00 per pound, US beekeepers are facing an uphill battle just to make ends meet.

They are also battling far greater losses of honeybees every year than they did a decade ago and facing a changing landscape in the Great Plains that plays a part in decreased honey production.

“We’re seeing historic losses of hives every year,” Adee said. “We used to expect around a 5% death loss. Now we’re seeing thirty-five to fifty-five percent losses every year.”

“My annual losses used to be under 5%,” said John Stolle, Sturgis Honey Company, Vale, SD. “Now we think a 25-30% loss is good.”

Queen bees are also exhibiting a shortened life span; in past years a queen might live for two or three years, now beekeepers replace them in the hives every year.

One culprit is the tiny Varroa mite, a parasitic mite that sucks the blood of bees and can transmit several viruses to honeybees through its bite. Cost and timing of treatment is yet another expense and task for beekeepers to juggle.

South Dakota is currently the only state offering free inspection of hives to keep tabs on honeybee health during the summer months and doing it without state funding.

“The program is all paid for by the beekeepers,” Bob Reiners said. “There is no general funding coming our way.”

Increased use of pesticides is likely another factor in the decreasing honeybee population, but the jury is still out on how big of a role they play. Longer residuals in chemicals have beekeepers avoiding sunflower fields and other crops that are likely to be sprayed.

“Back in the mid-80s we used to look for sunflower fields,” Adee said. “Now we pick up and leave.”

US honey production has dropped by nearly 100 million pounds in the last twenty years.

“We used to produce around 250 million pounds of honey,” Adee said. “Now production is closer to 150 million pounds. Typically, we can expect one good crop of honey every five to seven years. The landscape is changing. A lot of pasture land is now cropland; a lot of area where we take hives used to be prairie grass and now it’s farmed. It’s getting really hard to keep bees in eastern SD because the landscape has changed.”

“We’re thankful for the livestock industry,” said Stolle. “We benefit from putting our hives in pastures; ranchers benefit from the pollination of alfalfa and other crops. We can go hand in hand quite a bit, each directly or indirectly helps the other.”

The bee industry is fighting for accurate labeling of Country of Origin for honey that goes to the supermarket shelves in the US, and fighting to keep a tasty, safe and true product supplied to American consumers. Eric Andress believes that US consumers want good quality food for their families and will go to extra lengths to get what they want, but opening a specialty market for his own honey is not something he has the manpower to accomplish. He supplies honey to a local grocery store, but to pack honey and haul it to an area with a large enough population to develop a market for his whole crop is something he doesn’t have time for. So he’s still sitting on his 2019 crop, waiting on packers who are buying foreign honey faster and cheaper than he can produce it.

“It’s a good thing beekeepers are not bookkeepers,” John Stolle laughed. “Cattle producers understand what we’re dealing with: they spend twenty-four months waiting for calves that they put blood, sweat and tears into and then have to ask buyers what they will give for them. Beekeeping is truly a labor of love.”