WISHEK, N.D. — On Jan. 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first case of COVID-19 in the United States. More cases would follow, leading to officials putting in place travel restrictions and asking or telling people to stay at home. That’s the same timeframe in which bees that will spend their summers making honey on fields in North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and surrounding states were preparing for their second act — pollinating in almond orchards on the West Coast.

“It’s the biggest paid pollination event on earth. And we were right in the middle of it,” says John Miller of Miller Honey Farms.

John Miller of Miller Honey says the coronavirus pandemic meant changes to supply chains and labor for beekeepers, but all the work still got done. Photo taken May 29, 2020. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
John Miller of Miller Honey says the coronavirus pandemic meant changes to supply chains and labor for beekeepers, but all the work still got done. Photo taken May 29, 2020. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Commercial beekeeping operations are multistate ventures. Bees summer in places like North Dakota — which leads the nation in honey production — but they spend winter and early spring resting in warmer climates and performing paid pollination services in places such as California. That means a lot of people and a lot of supplies cross state lines and move around a lot, especially in the months before the move back to the Northern Plains.

As the pandemic — and the restrictions that have gone along with it — accelerated, beekeepers had to change up their practices to meet restrictions and keep their employees and communities safe. But beekeepers are quick to point out that nothing about their work changed.

“The bees are going to keep being bees. It’s like anything in agriculture,” says Erik Dohn of Danzig Honey. “They’re not aware of what’s going on with humans."

“I don’t think there was ever a question in any bee guy’s mind of whether we were going to go or not. That wasn’t the consideration. We’re bee guys. It’s what we do. Cattle guys didn’t take a day off, the whole livestock segment and then fruits and vegetables too,” Miller says. “I don’t know anyone who took a day off.”

Making adjustments

Honey bees swarm Danzig Honey bee boxes on May 26, 2020, near Wishek, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Honey bees swarm Danzig Honey bee boxes on May 26, 2020, near Wishek, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Central and western North Dakota, Dohn explains, are hotspots for U.S. honey production. Danzig Honey, his family’s operation, has produced 26 million pounds of honey since 2000. While eastern North Dakota tends toward more production of row crops, parts farther west remain “cattle country,” Dohn says. That means more sweet clover, more alfalfa, more vegetation for bees. And, it means more commercial beekeepers have summer operations in those areas. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, North Dakota produced 39.6 million pounds of honey in 2019, followed by Montana at 14.72 million pounds. South Dakota was fourth at 11.985 million pounds.

Coming in at third in honey production for 2019 was California, with 13.735 million pounds. But the beekeeping industry's California focus isn’t honey — it’s on pollination.

For many beekeepers, pollination has become the top priority and the top moneymaker. While Danzig Honey still focuses its efforts on honey production, Dohn says the winter pollination is of growing importance as agriculture changes.

Bees near Wishek, N.D., were "getting after it," on May 26, 2020, according to Erik Dohn of Danzig Honey. As vegetation grows, beekeepers remove supplementary feedings, and bees live on vegetation and produce honey. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Bees near Wishek, N.D., were "getting after it," on May 26, 2020, according to Erik Dohn of Danzig Honey. As vegetation grows, beekeepers remove supplementary feedings, and bees live on vegetation and produce honey. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Through a partnership with a California bee company, 90% of Danzig Honey bees pollinate almond orchards in California. Miller Honey bees also pollinate in almond orchards before moving into other crops like plums, apricots, cherries and more.

As the pandemic and the response to it grew, Miller says his company was able to continue operating without many problems. There were supply chain issues; things like rubber gloves, which beekeepers need for handling certain chemicals, were in hot demand. And then there were labor decisions that had to be made.

Miller Honey uses the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program, and their foreign employees arrived Jan. 15. Miller says H-2A employees have had opportunities to go home during low-points of past seasons.

“What if an employee wants to go home? They may. They are free to choose,” Miller says. “What then would be our response in protecting the remainder of the crew? So there was some anxiety. There is some anxiety.”

Miller says the other labor reality of what he calls the “new un-normal” is that Miller Honey traditionally had key employees travel to different points for important tasks. One key employee’s wife works at a care center in North Dakota and had strict compliance issues to adhere to, meaning sending her husband to another state could limit her ability to work.

“We then had a decision imposed on us that our key man would not travel and then return to North Dakota to avoid a potential exposure,” Miller says.

No one at Miller Honey has gotten sick. Miller says the crews adjusted to take care of their employees and to be respectful of their communities. When people did go into communities, the company made sure all employees had masks.

North Dakota leads the nation in honey production, which is produced during the summer months in the state. Danzig Honey sends most of its honey to a honey packer but packs a small amount for local sales. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
North Dakota leads the nation in honey production, which is produced during the summer months in the state. Danzig Honey sends most of its honey to a honey packer but packs a small amount for local sales. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Meanwhile, Danzig Honey’s crew was focused on the 10% of their bees that winter in Texas. That’s where the company builds hives to replace those they’ve lost. In early March, Dohn returned to North Dakota from Texas to attend his son’s confirmation ceremony in Wishek, then got on a half-full plane back to Texas. That was March 13.

Dohn says his mom made grocery runs for the whole crew to minimize the number of people out and about. When other supplies were needed, one or two people were responsible for the trips.

“So it wasn’t like, ‘We’re going in; the circus is coming to town,’” Dohn laughs.

By the end of March, Danzig Honey made a collective decision to send most employees home to North Dakota. Dohn and co-worker David Salwei stayed in Texas to finish up their bee work. They were there for 60 days straight before returning to North Dakota.

Danzig Honey also started moving their bees back to North Dakota earlier in May than usual. On May 26, all but 2,000 hives were in the approximately 2,200 square mile area in which Danzig Honey operates around Wishek. The last hives were expected to arrive before the beginning of June. Dohn says that’s a little earlier than the bees are usually out.

“It would have been better for the bees to stay there, to grow up,” he says. But, he adds, it’s better for the bees to be in North Dakota than stuck elsewhere.

'This is ag'

On May 26, 2020, Erik Dohn of Danzig Honey said almost all of the company's bees were in place in a 2,200 square mile area around Wishek, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
On May 26, 2020, Erik Dohn of Danzig Honey said almost all of the company's bees were in place in a 2,200 square mile area around Wishek, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Bee boxes are in place across the region. Beekeepers soon will remove the bees’ supplementary feed — corn syrup cut with water — and the bees will feed on the vegetation and produce honey.

Dohn and Miller both are as concerned about infrastructure in central North Dakota, where wet conditions in 2019 have wreaked havoc on roads, as they are about the pandemic. Beekeeping is a somewhat solitary job, so social distancing comes natural. And no matter what, the work still needs to get done.

“A third of the world’s food population comes from pollination. So they say every third bite you eat, a honey bee was involved,” Dohn says. “When you see those beekeepers driving down the road with their beat up trucks and boxes . . . it’s so we can feed everybody.”

“We’ve been through a very strange time the first half of 2020. For people who like to eat, beekeeping is very important,” Miller says. “This is ag. This is what we do.”