John Miller – Honey in California and North Dakota (Part 1)

Honey in California and North Dakota

by John Miller

Part 1

Beekeeping is changing so fast, certainly the business side of it. We spend a lot of time sampling dead bees. We don’t spend much time sampling really good bees, and we can probably learn even more if we did that. The ugly brutal truth of commercial beekeeping, whether you’re willing to admit it or not, is you’re losing about 2.5% of your hive each month. Dennis Van Engelsorp’s graph that showed summertime losses is an acknowledgement of the new normal of beekeeping. Queens are failing, and they failing a lot. When supercedures occur a lot, next year the Bee Informed Project is going to look at summertime supercedures and why those queens that are apparently successful are superseded. We know next to nothing about that.

Feed more calories than you harvest. Spring feed is not something to be bashful about. Pollen is important. In beekeeping there are 3 really good ways to lose a yard: code of the west is to leave the gate exactly as you found it, which means if you lay it down and run over the post and break it, you need to fix it. Or better yet, open the door. Here’s the bee board: numbers matter! I share an area in North Dakota with Dave LaFlore and Zack Browning and together, we run somewhere between 30-35,000 colonies together. We’re pretty close geographical to each other in the summer, we then disperse to our various places and recongregate on Braden Farms east of Turlock with some of the biggest almond farms on earth. We figured it’s 1,500 drops between Zack, Dave, and Jon within a 6 square mile area (1,500 bee yards because we’re running two hives to the acre). If the three of them are sharing a geographic chunk of North Dakota and then we’re right across the road from each other in California, our bees re seeing each other a lot. If we treated on the same day or the same week, we talked about the regime we’re going to treat them with or the materials and the timing and the dosing, we might be able to do something on a bigger scale; we might be able to demonstrate this community treatment. We ought to give this idea an open discussion.

Honey Production

Today, we talk about beekeepers who are in the business of serious honey production, they share their secrets, skills, and even their mistakes. We make as much honey as our bees can and so will you. Two of the smartest guys in this industry, one was Jim Powers, a big hulk of a man with the biggest personal library I ever saw, an icon. His philosophy about beekeeping was “do what you should do when you should do it.” Pretty simple. Not always convenient because we can think of a thousand excuses to not go out when it’s really hot, cold, or raining. There’s a lot of reasons we shouldn’t do what we should be doing. Another one is by Bob Conan, who’s just one of those guys who can’t seem to stop learning. Conan’s very quietly graphed 200,070 queens every year, 3000 a day everyday without interruption, without fail for 90 days in a row. It’s like a military operation. He used to say “Act not because you happened to think about it but because you had a plan.” His plan begins February 1st because drone production needs to begin so there are enough drones of sufficient age, number, vitality, vigor, and health to make out a portion of those 200,070 cells that go into queen-rearing yards, mostly in Northern California. You should see the dedication and relentless attention to detail that most queen breeders bring to their science and art of beekeeping.

We made a mealy 100,000 pounds of honey on 10,000 hives and then made this epic walk in the wilderness, and made ¾ of million pounds off fewer hives. We made a little more and a little more and then went off this cliff where we couldn’t keep our hives alive and we couldn’t produce a honey crop. We got our count up and our crop went down, which began a series of really awkward conversations with my banker.

We spent a lot of time in North Dakota trying to pave it with corn and the areas that weren’t paved with corn we tried paving with soybeans. There 200,000 square miles of soybeans in America! It’s a lot. 128 million of acres, or 10% of that, of that in North Dakota is thin, poorly suited, highly erodible soil. A lot of it is native prairie. If you put $400 an acre into it, it can be corn. It almost covers their inputs. Those acres need to go back into a program like CRP (Crop Reduction Program), which is really good for the animals and the bees. These poor prices for corn and soybeans may be driving farmers to make decisions about land use, but corn acridge in America is decided by Congress in America — not such a great idea. Things have changed inside the hives. In my career, it’s been the most tumultuous path of beekeeping since bees arrived in North America. We lose track of that because sometimes it feels like politics. You know that 123 pound average was tampered by 43 cent honey, which isn’t nearly as fun as $2 honey, right? It all works out.

Diverse forage is so important. You’ll hear Kim speak so favorably about an outfit called “Pheasants Forever Today.” Any kind of forage that’s good for a pheasant or quail is great. It trumps beekeepers in fundraising; they knocking out 7 figure donations. It’s amazing.

Here’s what does not work on Miller Honey Farms, and this is heresy, but repairing high bodies, repairing covers, repairing bottoms, and repairing pallets. We don’t do flea maintenance; it does not work. It also doesn’t work for other people to do flea maintenance. I haven’t figured that one out. It makes me crazy.

Let’s talk about why we don’t do paint and repairs. It’s what we do! How many hives can the average hired man manage? 500 is a good rule of thumb. I get criticized by my brethren because they all say it’s 1000. We don’t do assembly. We buy finished, painted equipment and it doesn’t matter. Man Lake makes a great rim. They paint it, brand it, stencil our name on it. We take it off the truck and put it to work. We don’t nail frames together. We don’t embed foundations. Everything we do is about keeping bees, not assembling equipment. Labor and training is expensive, so I hire my beekeepers to keep bees.

Things To Remember

Pillar: Spend your assets intelligently. Labor is way over $20 an hour, but I have to spend those assets intelligently. I have 200 beekeepers at $20 an hour for 10 hours a day, that’s real money. Live hives are more valuable than the last twenty pounds of a honey crop. That’s a pillar. It’s an irrefutable truth and it’s true every year. I’ll be renting my bees for about $1.90 with a $10 bonus so it’s about $200 for almond pollination. If I don’t start hive health cleanup on August 10, my winter losses will be higher. I have hundreds of semis worth of bees going west at 120 pounds per colony, they will survive at a higher rate than an 110 pound colony and much higher than an 100 pound colony going west for winter. Numbers matter. Live hives are valuable than the last 20 pounds of the honey crop.