Beeeess by the Buzz-illion!
When asked how many bees he has, Jerry Brown’s standard answer is a “buzz-illion.” Seems fitting given that Brown’s Honey Farm, located at Haddam, is the state’s largest bee operation.
The farm, which has 4,200 beehives, got its start in the 1920s when Jerry’s grandfather, Vernon Adee, began keeping bees.
“In the early 1900s it was common for families to have a few beehives just as it was common for families to have a few cows, some chickens or a goat,” Jerry says. “The honey was then used as a sweetener instead of sugar.”
Vernon’s family had five boys and five girls and at one time all five boys were involved in commercial beekeeping. Vernon died three years ago at the age of 97.
Jerry’s father, Robert Brown, is still involved with the beekeeping operation. Jerry’s 16-year-old son, Nathan, has also taken an active role in the operation and already has more than 100 hives of his own, making him one of the top 20 largest beekeepers in Kansas.
The farm produced 27,500 gallons of honey in 2004 and 16,500 gallons in 2005. Timely rainfalls and more clover being available contributed to the exceptional production in 2004. Honey is stored in 55-gallon barrels until it can be transported to a honey packing plant in Hillsboro, Kansas, where it is then bottled and marketed. Each barrel is currently valued at $450.
Although important, honey production is just one aspect of the business. Each January the Brown’s travel to an area just outside Modesto, California, and essentially rent their beehives to almond growers for pollination. They manage the beehives, moving them as needed to ensure they have good sources of nectar and water and monitor the bees’ health. Last year they stayed until May 10.
Jerry’s first request for pollination in California came from an almond grower whose field manager was from Clifton, Kansas. Brown’s Honey Farm now supplies bees to three large almond growers. Each acre requires three hives to pollinate and this year they plan to take more than 20 semi-loads of bees to California.
A shortage of bees has increased the price almond growers are willing to pay to have bees. In addition, nearly 90 percent of the almond crop is dependent on bee pollination. These factors contribute to the current high value of $150 per hive for pollination.
“The pollination has gotten to be a lot larger part of our business than the honey production,” Jerry says. “It’s what has kept us in the bee business.”
In addition to taking care of their own bees, this year the Brown’s will also be caring for bees for other producers who choose not to relocate to California.
Pollination is just one major industry change Jerry has seen over the years. Another change is the introduction of mites to the United States in the mid-1980s. The Varroa mite in particular has become a major problem.
The challenge becomes even greater because mites quickly build resistance to effective treatments. In addition, only one or two chemicals are approved for treatment because the beehive becomes a food product.
“It used to be if we lost 3 to 4 percent of our hives over the winter, it was a bad winter. Now we probably lose 10 percent in the summer due to mites,” Jerry says. “An operation takes more close management now and you have to work harder just to keep your bees alive.”
Another industry change has been the growth in imported honey and its impact on honey prices. According to Jerry, half the honey in the United States is now imported from places such as China or Argentina.
“I don’t mind competing on a world scale if it’s a quality product, but some of what is sold is junk and some countries use unsafe chemicals to prevent the mites,” Jerry says. “It is also hard to compete with labor prices.”
Although Brown’s Honey Farm has seen many industry changes over the years, some things still stay the same. Throughout the year when their bees are not in California or wintering at the Haddam farm, they are divided over 130 locations in Kansas and Nebraska. In return for keeping the bees, landowners receive honey and the benefit of pollination. Jerry says there is a waiting list of places that would like to have bees.
“There is nostalgia with some of the people who keep our bees for us,” Nathan says. “Many of them remember their parents or grandparents having a few hives on their farm and they want that experience too.”
Of course the beekeeping business is not without its hazards. Nathan says that an occasional sting is just part of the job.
“Even if you don’t think you have a hole in your bee suit, you probably do,” Nathan says laughingly.
But father and son both agree the family business is enjoyable.
“We have a rich heritage of beekeeping in our family,” Jerry says. “At one point when my grandfather was still alive we had four generations actively involved in our operation. We’ll keep that going.”