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Bill Fluke is the owner and operator of Arlee Apiaries, which maintains 4,000 hives, produces honey in the summertime and in the winter, migrates hives for fruit and almond pollination on the west coast. Photo by Madison Dapcevich, Special to Agweek

Sweet hobby is all the buzz

ARLEE, Mont. — Bill Fluke and his father started keeping bees as a hobby when he was a child in Idaho with just one beehive. Nearly half a century later, Fluke is the owner and operator of Arlee Apiaries, which maintains 4,000 hives, produces honey in the summer, and in the winter, migrates hives for fruit and almond pollination on the west coast.

In previous years, Arlee Apiaries would pack its hives around the end of November and move them into holding yards in California before pollination. But, a shortage of production land from an increase in almond demand has forced Fluke to build winterized structures on his property to house bees throughout the winter.

“The problem is there are so many people down there and everybody is planting more and more, so a lot of the areas where we used to have our holding yards are being planted on,” Fluke says.

Arlee Apiaries stacks 5,000 bee boxes six pallets high when warehousing. Forced air fans hold temperatures between an optimum 39 to 42 degrees Fahrenheit with 2.5 pounds of negative pressure that forces carbon dioxide out.

In mid-January, the beekeepers will load 4,000 hives into two semi trucks and begin the drive to California, where they will live for two months to maintain the bees during the almond pollination.

In mid-April, the team will again pack and load the hives, this time heading to Washington, Oregon and Montana for cherry and apple pollination. After the pollinating season is over, Fluke and his team pack their hives and head home for the summer to produce honey in their home of Flathead Valley.

“When people tell me I live in Montana, I say ‘Well, no. I live in my pick-up truck, and my mailing address is in Montana. We’re a bunch of gypsies,’” Fluke says. “It makes for a good marriage. The standing joke is that we’ve been married for 40 years and I’ve been home for six weeks.”

Traveling isn’t the only challenge Fluke has seen in his more than 40 years of keeping bees. Environmental pressures, including parasite outbreaks, corporate monocropping and the use of pesticide and herbicide spraying, has threatened bee populations across the nation.

“If we lose our bees then we are going to lose our food source,” Fluke says. “One in three bites of food you eat has been touched by bees at some point in the food chain. Once the bees are gone, all of that will be gone. People are finally starting to wake up.”

In 1991, Arlee Apiaries experienced firsthand the dangers of losing mass amounts of bees when his hive count went from more than 3,000 colonies down to 800. At the time, that was nearly unheard of, but according to Fluke, this concept has become more common. Despite the delicate nature of keeping bees, Fluke enjoys his job more than most.

“The enjoyment of what I do, there’s nothing better than going out and looking at what’s going on in a hive,” Fluke says. “You’re outside, it’s quiet, and when you have good weather conditions, you just clear your mind.”

Arlee Apiaries builds and maintains bee boxes onsite and produces both wax and honey. Fluke and his team is currently gearing up for the spring cherry pollination on Flathead Lake in northwest Montana.

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