John Miller – Honey in California and North Dakota (Part 2)

Honey in California and North Dakota

by John Miller

Part 2

Things To Remember cont.

Pillar: Study and observe success. Don’t build a honey house in a bubble. I used to think John had all the good ideas. We built a honey house in 2008 and 2009, but before we built it, we studied other honey houses. We studied the zoning, the sewerage, and the floorplans. Study; take lots of pictures; take them back to your managers and kick them around and talk about stuff.

Pillar: Decide what you won’t do. Decide what your honey house won’t do. Here’s what I don’t do: I don’t do bee sting therapy, I don’t do nukes, I don’t do brood, I don’t make candles, I don’t rear queens, I don’t go to farmer’s markets, I don’t do cosmetics, I don’t do lipbalm, I don’t do tours, I don’t give classes, I don’t do AI. I produce honey and I pollinate crops. I think people fail to identify what they won’t do and do stuff they don’t enjoy, can’t do or shouldn’t do.

Transporting Bees

This guy had this idea. He lived in Northern Utah and he was in Orange County, CA, a place that used to have orange trees. About 109 years ago, he saw all these bees on the trees and thought that if he could only get his bees down there, he could have his winter crop and his summer crop. He bought a piece of land in San Bernardino, CA like AI Root, who bought land. They were pretty smart. Within 3 years, bees were going from Winnipeg to the Gulf Coast. It was the most interrupted change in bee transportation since they were going down the Nile. This changed a lot of things for a lot of beekeepers.

Things have changed and here’s what we do now: the 10-wheeler moves 216 hives, which is exactly half of a semi and you can do it pretty quick if they all stay on the truck. But I’m not doing a lot of the things mentioned earlier because I’m an industrial beekeeper. This is not a purgaric term. Two or three weeks ago, I had supper with Hannah Nordhaus — she wrote the book, The Beekeeper’s Lament — and she refers to American industrial beekeeping as not purgative, it’s just what we do here that’s industrialized agriculture.

Drones and agriculture didn’t exist five years ago. We put a GoPro camera on a drone and put it up in the air, it documented the unloading of bees. It was May in North Dakota. If you look at the covers, there’s no paint! You can buy a cover from Used Pallet Company with a crappy pleat on the end for $1.70 and it’s made out of culled tomato bins so the paint won’t stick to it. You get ten years out of it for $1.70, which is 17 cents a year for this cover that I’m not going to repair. I used to drive to Arcada, CA to pick up 14-foot pieces of tongue and groove Redwood and we would make gorgeous bottoms and covers out of them. They lasted forever. Some are still in the outfit. They’re beautiful! But, they can’t compete with $1.70? Also, the question is: can they keep the rain out? The $1.70 does just as good a job as the $37.50 and the bees don’t care.

Our bees go to our cellars in southeast Idaho in the winter from Thanksgiving to about the 10th of January. If you’ve been in a potato cellar, it’s a double hoop with a big air plenum in the middle, you’ll know that a potato and beehive are a lot alike in the middle of winter: 41 degrees, dry, and dark. If you were a honey bee living in a tree 10,000 years ago in the middle of Europe, that’s where you’d want to be. Ron Spears is running 22,000 hives and has two similar buildings, but they’re steel and cubed. These are run out of Jerome, Idaho. He’s doing the same thing we are which is a semi per row; twenty rows is 20 semis. Pretty simple. All of your eggs are in that building. What if the fans go off, the CO2 is too high, or it’s too hot? So we’re now studying indoor wintering. I know if the bee dies of CO2, I failed my husbandry. If it’s too warm, I failed to do my job. My responsibility as we study industrial, indoor wintering is to be as smart as I can. All this is valuable information to me because it informs my decisions of how heavy the hive needs to be before it leaves North Dakota for winter? $1.20. Over the years with these hundreds of semis of anecdotal data can be backed up by saying “Maybe 118 lbs. is better. 2 lbs. per hive and 500 per semi so if I could shave 2 lbs and still retain 96% wintering survivorship, I could make that outfit that much more efficient.”

Production Agriculture

Things are changing rapidly in production agriculture. There is now a product Monsanto has released called Smart Stacks Pro 87411. If you don’t grow corn, it won’t mean a thing but in that product, there’s a RANI treatment for corn rootworm. This is a game changer. In 2016, Monsanto will seek approval for a Colorado potato beetle RANI treatment. They’d like to have perennial corn, which will be with us in five years, and so will perennial soybeans. Some of the poorest people on earth will have access to more and better quality food than ever. Naturally, there’s a robust debate between RANI, the ethicists, the environmentalists, the corn growers. They all want a seat at the table and beekeepers should insist on getting a seat too because corn rootworm, malarial mosquitoes, and potato beetles are all destructed pests. The honey bee is the most beneficial insect on earth. We should be advocating for something beneficial that would improve a lot more people’s lives. These changes are upon us. Why aren’t we advocating for some sort of inspection or detection around the ports? Varroa would’ve never made it across the Pacific without help. The costs have ruined us.

Pillar: Preventative measures are more productive than redemptive measures. Given our experience with varroa, not doing something about tropilaelaps is like bobbing for piranhas. Going to the issue of labor, we have lots, like employee issues. One of my tactical responses is don’t paint, don’t repair, buy the cheapest most efficient pieces of equipment you can. In 2003, we started using this program called H2A and we got this great batch of South African kids who wanted to work. When one of the kids went home, his room was filled with nearly new clothes because he had never been properly taught how to wash them. So when his clothes got dirty, he just bought new ones. I must have been paying him too much! So we started using this DOL program that supplies us with Mexican farmers who mostly have their own hives in Mexico. These are guys who know that the sanctions imposed by breaking the rules give them a five year time out from participating in any labor program. I know that I get fined if I don’t follow the rules with exactness because if the DOL, who hate non-union labor, sees this regulatory maze because we can’t find Americans who want to work bees. We advertise in 4 states, 4 newspaper, 3 weeks before we can demonstrate that we can’t find anyone to come work for us and then, we’re able to proceed with our job order. It’s burdensome, expensive, and the former Chief of Agriculture certification described it best: “The H2A program is not currently a reliable program to meet labor needs in situations where domestic workers are not available.” This was said in 1997 and it’s only become worse. Half of the commercial outfits in America use H2A. We’re quite dependent on it. By streamlining the H2A process so agricultural workers can cross and return to their homes, we could save hundreds of deaths each year in illegal migrant crossings. The law has this perverse, unintended consequence of results and fatalities because it’s so difficult to comply. Stable labor is crucial.

Pillar: If you fall off a semi or out of bed or down the stairs or you get a blow from behind, have a plan. Allow your guys to make mistakes, just don’t allow those mistakes to be fatal.

If you’re using a Flir camera, which is a thermal camera that measures the heat coming from a beehive, you click it into your phone and take your images. Simple. If I’m walking into a stacks of bees, it’s looking into the heat. It’s inexpensive on Amazon, about $200. I wouldn’t use it during the daylight because it’s specifically made for night vision, but it’s going to revolutionize hive strength for almonds. With the Flir, you can also tell which hives are dead and which are alive.

The doppelganger moment: who are we; what do we want to be; what are we not going to be; do we aspire to be industrial or artisanal beekeepers; how do we want to live? My greatest privilege on this planet is to introduce new generations to the art of beekeeping, not the business, industry, or science, but the art.