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N.D. tops again in honey production

Conrad Dietzler's bees are cavorting in California's fruits and nuts, pollinating blossoms in almond orchards and taking a break from making honey. But they are a part of the reason North Dakota once again leads the nation in honey production, an...

Conrad Dietzler's bees are cavorting in California's fruits and nuts, pollinating blossoms in almond orchards and taking a break from making honey. But they are a part of the reason North Dakota once again leads the nation in honey production, and by a big margin over the so-called Golden State, as production there and nationwide is down.

For the fourth year in a row, in fact, the state is the top U.S. honey producer, with 31.1 million pounds of honey, more than twice as much as No. 2, California, which produced 13.6 million pounds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

North Dakota produced 21 percent of the nation's 148 million pounds of honey last year.

Dietzler recently got home to Larimore, N.D., from setting his bees on the almond trees, and he will return about March 20 to move them to southeastern Oklahoma, where they will rest up and "build up" for a season of honey-making across Grand Forks, Nelson, Walsh and Pembina counties. "About May 10, we haul them up to North Dakota," Dietzler says.

Feeding

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He's one of about 170 licensed beekeepers in the state, and he's seeing more "out-of-state beekeepers" showing up to feast their bees on the state's alfalfa, sweet clover, sunflowers and especially canola. The number of honey-producing bee colonies in the state was up 20 percent to 420,000 last year, USDA says.

Dietzler has 3,000 colonies, or "hives," that he puts in about 80 locations across the four counties.

Statewide, yield and prices were average or a little below, at 74 pounds per colony and 92 cents a pound. Dietzler says that, partly because of his plum locations in northeastern North Dakota, his bees yield above the state average.

"Last year, we averaged 99 pounds a colony," he says.

But prices less than $1 a pound make it difficult to make money. "The highest we ever got was $1.55, in 2003, I think it was," he says.

Prices range, during the past two decades, from nearly 50 cents to that high of $1.55. Last year's average price was the same as in 2006.

More typical yields for him are 120 to 125 pounds per colony.

"I didn't think the bees were quite as strong last year, and we had a lot of rain," Dietzler says. "Every day it rains, the bees can't work."

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Dietzler is part of the Sue Bee Association of Sioux City, Iowa, and sells all his honey to it. The Sue Bee brand can be seen on retail shelves across the region.

Bee deaths

North Dakota has been spared, relatively, from the mysterious bee die-offs of recent years. But not entirely.

"In 2005, we lost 90 percent of our bees, and in 2006, we lost 60 percent," Dietzler says. This past year, it was 20 percent, which is close to normal. The losses happen during the winter, so it happens for his bees in California and Oklahoma.

Year in, year out, North Dakota leads the nation in raising about a dozen crops, including honey. This year's dominance of the honey share, 21 percent, may be a record for the state; more typical in recent years has been 17 percent share of national production.

The other crops, and their share of the nation's production, in 2006, were: spring wheat, 46 percent; durum wheat, 59 percent; barley, 27 percent; canola, 92 percent; all sunflowers, 52 percent; flax, 94 percent; all dry edible beans, 32 percent; pinto beans, 52 percent; navy beans, 36 percent; dry edible peas, 71 percent; and lentils, 37 percent.

Ideal location

The variety of crops, the climate and lack of population all combine to make it a great place for honeybees, Dietzler says. The large number of acres put into grasslands in the federal Conservation Reserve Program the past 20 years, especially to alfalfa and sweet clover, has made a big difference, Dietzler says. In 1991, for example, when CRP acres still were getting going, the state's beekeepers produced 22 million pounds of honey, about 10 percent of the nation's total.

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One reason is the relatively cool climate, which allows North Dakota bees to really roll in the clover.

Sweet clover, for example, is a big crop in Kansas, too.

"But sweet clover doesn't yield in real hot states," he says. "If it's 90 or 100 degrees, the flowers don't yield much nectar."

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