GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) – For some, retired life is about sitting back and relaxing, but for Judy and Dennis Walker, co-owners of High Plains Honey, they’re as busy as bees.
Dennis said he’s been fascinated with beekeeping since he was a kid. Then 49 years ago, he married Judy, a fifth-generation beekeeper, which gave him more exposure to the industry.
“One day I was at a yard sale and saw some equipment and bought it, and from there it just blossomed,” Dennis said.
They started out with 12 hives, and for 30 years have kept bees as a hobby. Then six years ago, to supplement their Social Security, they decided to take it to the next level. The Walkers drove to North Dakota and bought 75 hives to add to the 30 they already had, and that’s how High Plains Honey was born.
“That wasn’t bad, so the next year we went to about 200,” Dennis said. “And now we’re at where we’re at.”
Where they’re at this summer is 800 hives located in 30 bee yards spread around northeast Wyoming. With 50,000 bees per hive, that adds up to 40 million bees. Their honey is sold in 10 stores in Gillette and all over northeast Wyoming, from Sheridan to Newcastle.
This summer is the first time in four years that there hasn’t been a drought, Judy said. In 2014, an average hive produced about 100 pounds of honey. Typically, it’s only 65 pounds and production was even lower the last three years.
In a drought, there are fewer flowers in bloom, and with fewer flowers, bees produce less honey. As a result, the bees are weaker and more prone to illness, Dennis said. But so far this year, they’ve seen fields of sweet clover and alfalfa blooming next to their hives.
“It’s looking better,” Judy said. “We’re just hoping it keeps raining.”
And though they have nearly four decades of experience raising bees, the learning never stops, Dennis said. One new practice has been a literal lifesaver during the harshest months.
Winter is bad news for bees. According to an annual nationwide survey by Auburn University and the University of Maryland, beekeepers lost about 31 percent of their bees from October 2017 to April 2018.
The Walkers said that despite their best efforts, the Wyoming winter would wipe out about half of their bee population.
Now, they’ll ship their hives out to California for the winter and rent the bees out to orchard owners. In February, the bees will pollinate almond trees, and when that’s finished they’ll move on to orange orchards.
It also allows the couple to take a break, something that’s rare during bee season.
“We have most of the winter off to sit around, get fat and out of shape,” Dennis said, which is a much better fate than the male bees, also known as drones. They’re only there to mate with female bees, Dennis said, otherwise they’re useless. Once that’s done, the drones do nothing but lay around the hive eating honey.
But when winter comes around, the female bees kick the freeloading drones out of the hives.
LABOR OF LOVE
Campbell County Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron English doesn’t have 36 years of experience or 800 hives. He has three years and two hives, and he expects he’ll keep at beekeeping as a hobby for a while.
He used to be a federal trapper in California and would often find wild beehives in oak trees. This fascinated him, and when he moved to Gillette he thought about keeping bees. But he never did anything until 2015, when he took the plunge and bought his first hive.
Including the cost of a colony of bees, the hive and periodical treatment for diseases, English estimates he’s invested $500 into one hive, which is a lot of money for the four gallons of honey that he’ll collect from it in a few months.
“It would be cheaper for me to buy a 50-gallon drum of honey than it’d be to raise bees,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think there’s anything special about his own honey. “It tastes like honey.”
But there’s something about knowing where the honey comes from, down to the bees and flowers, he said.
“You hear all those stories with the stuff you buy in the store, they’ll sometimes mix high fructose corn syrup with it and you’re not always certain you’re getting pure honey,” he said. “This way, I know exactly what I’m getting.”
He said the bees are pretty self-sustaining. He checks on his hives once every nine to 11 days, otherwise he just lets them do their thing.
He also has two steers that are learning – the hard way – not to follow English when he checks on the hives, because the honeybees sting them whenever they come near.
“Just be patient with them, learn to work slowly around them and you won’t have a problem,” said English, who was stung three times last year and hasn’t been stung so far in 2018.
English said he hasn’t experienced a big loss of bees during the winter, but he doesn’t attribute this to his beekeeping skills.
“It’s nothing special that I’m doing. I’ve just been lucky,” he said.
He said the local beekeeping community is close and he tries to learn as much as he can from those who are more experienced.
Megan McManamen of the Campbell County Master Gardeners said although people aren’t allowed to keep honeybees within Gillette city limits, they can still do their part to make their yards as pollinator-friendly as possible. She recommends setting up insect hotels and planting a variety of native wildflowers to benefit not just honeybees, but other types of bees, butterflies, moths and wasps.
Dennis said bees get aggravated when they’re stuck in the hive all day because they’d much rather be working outside, a feeling shared by he and his wife. For them, just being outside and hanging out with the bees is what makes it all worth it.
“Days like (Thursday), just looking at that perfect frame of bees, that just made my day,” he said.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com
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