- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Nathan Clarke’s bees spend their time scattered around the Madison area. That’s great in spring and summer, not so great in winter.

Doug Hauke’s bees, like snowbirds, are in Central Wisconsin now but winter in California, Texas and other warmer climes.

Loading up semi trailers with buzzing hives headed to points south doesn’t just protect bees increasingly weakened by disease and pestilence from harsh weather. The pollination service also brings a separate revenue stream that can equal or outpace what a beekeeper makes from honey.

While Clarke’s business, Mad Urban Bees, survives locally as a relatively small producer, Hauke said that on a larger scale the migration strategy is essential for sustainable success in the state’s battered bee business.

“You can’t winter bees here because it’s too cold and there are too many diseases. The guys who winter here never get ahead because they are always buying replacement bees,” said Hauke, owner of Hauke Honey Corp. near Marshfield, which is among the largest pollinating and honey-producing operations in the state.

While honey production continues on small dairy farms or pops up in cities, the Wisconsin State Journal (https://bit.ly/23k0Cjj ) reports that most of Wisconsin’s commercial beekeeping operations take their bees on the road for months to keep them warm and healthy. They join about 1,600 beekeepers from around the country to help pollinate California’s almond trees in February and other fruits and vegetables in other states the rest of the year.

But that business model isn’t real appealing for many beginning beekeepers, even though the financial rewards can be greater.

“I would like to mentor somebody to take over for me someday, but they find out how hard I work and they go running,” said Hauke, 62, who never married and has no children. “They see I have no time for anything else. I’m gone all the time.”

Beekeepers brought in $656 million from pollinating crops in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, dwarfing the $283 million from honey production that same year. Directly and indirectly, pollinators’ role was essential to up to a third of the U.S. food supply.

While the country has several multimillion dollar beekeeping operations, Hauke said, none is in Wisconsin - a state once one of the nation’s top honey producers.

In recent years bees around the nation have been hit hard by disease, parasites and environmental factors like pesticides. According to a report from the Bee Informed Partnership that uses data from several sources, more than 40 percent of the nation’s commercial hives were lost during the 2014-15 winter. With cold weather exacerbating bees already weakened by pests and disease, Wisconsin’s beekeepers lost 60.2 percent of their hives, which was among the highest in the country.

Losses like those have pushed down honey production over the past 10 years. Wisconsin bees produced an all-time low of 2.9 million pounds of honey in 2014, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service data, a 51.7 percent drop from 2006.

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Challenging business

Hauke Honey is among the biggest producers in Wisconsin, with 3,000 hives, five full-time employees and about $1 million in revenue per year, Hauke said. Pollination and honey production each account for about 40 percent of the company’s income. The rest comes from selling queens and forage bees.

He said he sells the lion’s share of his honey, about 200,000 pounds every year, to brewing companies including Miller-Coors, which uses it in some Leinenkugel’s and Blue Moon beers, and craft brewers such as Central Waters and Stevens Point.

In addition to disease and pests, broader changes in agriculture also have hurt honey production, Hauke said. Wisconsin farmers have zeroed in on corn, alfalfa and soybeans, limiting biodiversity that supports pollinators. And many crops have been genetically modified to be resistant to pesticides, allowing more use of the chemicals that kill weeds that are a good pollen source for bees. Urban bees like Clarke’s, with a banquet of flowerbeds and weeds to visit, don’t suffer from that dearth of pollination.

In the last two decades, Hauke said, imports have cut into sales as well. Today, 80 percent of the honey consumed in the United States is imported at prices that are less than half of those from domestic commercial beekeepers, according to Bee Culture magazine.

Most of the other commercial beekeeping operations in the state are much smaller than Hauke’s and are also diversified with pollination and bee sales operations, according to Gordon Waller, president of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association.

“You can make a comfortable living, but it’s not a good living for the hours you have to put into it and the knowledge you need to be good at it,” said John Piechowski, owner of Henry’s Honey Farm in Redgranite.

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The California ‘cesspool’

While Wisconsin’s winters can be punishing on bees, some also die each February among California’s 90 million almond trees during what Scientific American magazine calls “the largest managed pollination event anywhere in the world.”

Hauke, who sends 2,400 hives there each year, called it “a cesspool” in which sick honeybees mingle with healthy ones among the trees that produce 50 to 80 percent of the world’s almonds. Making matters worse, some almond farmers spray pesticides when the bees are pollinating, he said.

“That’s why diseases spread so fast,” he said, noting the sick bees can also transmit disease after they return home. “We deal with it because that’s where the money is.”

The cost to pollinate the almond trees has jumped from $45 to $76 per hive in 2005 to around $182 in 2015, according to the Fresno Bee. Hauke figures he nets about 65 percent of that per-hive total during a two-week period but still has to cover $100,000 in shipping costs to move his bees via six semi tractor-trailers. He also loses bees from disease, pesticides and theft while they are in California.

“Some years we get three semi loads back that are dead,” Hauke said. “This year everything came back good.”

Hauke believes it’s worth it. “If it wasn’t for California almonds, there would be no commercial beekeepers right now,” he said. “It would just be hobby beekeeping. So it’s keeping the industry alive. We owe a lot to California.”

Piechowski, 75, who sends 1,500 hives to California in October and retrieves them in April, claims he rarely makes a profit from almond pollination but it’s worth it for him because the hives that make it through come back robust and ready to go to work.

He also earns extra income driving semi tractor-trailers to retrieve bees for Wisconsin and other area beekeepers. This April, he said he made four round trips to California.

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Changing of the guard?

An increasing number of beekeepers, many of whom are in Hauke’s age bracket, are considering early retirement or quitting the business because they can’t afford to keep up the physical and financial toll of replacing dying bees.

“We’re not worried about the bees going extinct, we’re worried about the beekeepers going extinct,” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an apiarist from the University of Maryland, told the Wall Street Journal.

Tim Tucker, president of the American Beekeeping Federation and a beekeeper in Kansas, told the Mother Nature Network that as more beekeepers quit, the honey industry may have to start relying more on urban beekeepers like Clarke and hobbyists who are increasing the demand for bees.

Clarke’s Mad Urban Bees, which places 90 hives at homes in Madison, Middleton and Monona, sold all the honey it produced last year and kept more than half of its bees alive over the winter. Now he’s confident that this will be the first year his 5-year-old business will be profitable.

Clarke, 40, said he’s improving his business practices, running a more efficient operation and already has recouped the cost of replacing this winter’s dead bees.

“My goal is to have it support me, to start paying my mortgage this year,” he said. “I’ve calculated it out - this should be the year.”

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Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj

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