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Published June 27, 2011, 04:30 AM

Bees and a book

FARGO N.D. — Honeybees are important — certainly to my family. I occasionally had a firsthand experience with a commercial honeybee business that was run by my mother’s first cousin, Jim Folsland, in Oldham, S.D., in Kingsbury County.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO N.D. — Honeybees are important — certainly to my family.

I occasionally had a firsthand experience with a commercial honeybee business that was run by my mother’s first cousin, Jim Folsland, in Oldham, S.D., in Kingsbury County.

Jim and Marcee, my godparents, often were hosts to our family for the Fourth of July. My three brothers and I, and the four Folsland boys of roughly similar ages, would have a big time shooting fireworks, blowing up cans and such and feasting on some of the best chicken and potato salad I’ve ever eaten.

Jim still is a lively conversationist, and part of the reason is his honey operation. The Folslands were happy to hand you jars (or bear-shaped bottles) of some of their honey as a special gift. Honey was something I loved eating, mostly with peanut butter on toast. Sometimes, the Folslands would give us whipped honey, which I found especially delightful.

Conversations with Jim often included a primer about bees and honey. He could hold forth about how they pollinated the crops in the South, how South Dakota was one of the top producers of honey in the country. Often, he would entertain us with the exploits of “Whiskers,” one of the family’s regular employees, who lived simply and exceptionally frugally, there in Oldham.

One summer, one of my brothers worked bees for the Folslands. One time, I remember helping load trucks with beehives for their commute to Southern climes for the wintering operation. Today, the Folslands still are in the honey business. Brad and his wife have the operation and David and his wife care for another.

Another of my mother’s cousins, David Severson, moved to California. He married a woman who runs a business that her father started — at last report about 10,000 hives and heavy into pollination for almond and prune growers. They have a queen grafting business that artificially inseminates queens and sells them for hundreds of dollars.

As an ag reporter in North Dakota, I’ve seen the impact of the honey industry on the state, and often have reported about threats to a business. So when I came across “The Beekeeper’s Lament: How one man and a half a billion bees help feed America,” I couldn’t resist.

The book is by Hanna Nordhaus of Boulder, Colo., who has written for the Los Angeles Times, Financial Times and the Village Voice. At 336 pages, it’s an easy read, and hard to put down.

The book weaves the personal story of John Miller of California, who leaves home eight months a year to keep his bees in the summertime in Gackle, N.D., to a changing, evolving industry. It talks about his family’s three-generation history, dating to their Mormon roots on the West Coast, about Miller’s entry into the bee industry, his colorful quotes about the realities of bee mortality — various mites, various colony collapse disorder causes — his ability to cope with the vagaries of weather and labor realities that make it necessary to hire South African temporary workers.

Miller, who is part of the advocacy organization called Project Apis mellifera, pushing for better research and to educate Americans about the importance of bees and bee habitats, opens himself up for Nordhaus, reveals his own character and offers an impressive and often frank discussion about the realities of the large-scale bee business — how it is beneficial for honey lovers but absolutely vital to the production of crops that Americans have come to rely on.

Seriously. Check this one out: “Beekeeper’s Lament,” Harper, $14.99. Tags: