|Harvest time has arrived already for some farmers. Hay
crops are impressive this year with the regular and almost plentiful
rain we’ve had. And, the honey “crop” is coming in
now, as well.
I ran into Dean Thompson, manager of Steve E. Parks Apiary, the other day and invited myself to see the honey extraction process and ask a few questions. He obliged and filled me in on a few details of the area honey business.
Local bees make their honey from alfalfa or sweet clover. “They’re big honey plants.” Canola is an occasional alternative in this area. And, so is spurge. “But, you wouldn’t like spurge honey.” And, bees don’t like spurge much, either. Still they can make honey from spurge, if there’s no other choice.
The Steve E. Parks Apiary has 150 locations out of Harlowton with 32 hives at each location. Each hive has a minimum of two supers (boxes with nine frames) where bees deposit their honey on a plastic foundation coated with a thin layer of wax.
Prior to extraction, supers are received and held in the hot room (95 degrees) to bring honey toward a fluid state. Individual frames are then moved to a conveyor where a top layer of wax is skimmed off. The frames are then placed into a centrifuge and free honey spun out and carried through a heat exchanger (maintains high temperature). Then, the liquid goes through a spin floating process to clean and separate wax from the honey.
Honey is temporarily stored in one of two huge holding tanks and eventually transferred into 55-gallon drums to be shipped out generally by the truckload. A typical truck carries 65 barrels - 44,000 lb. - of honey.
Thompson employs up to 24 people during the height of the honey season which is about right now. Monthly summer payroll is over $20,000. Two full-time, year-round employees share the slow season work with Dean. They melt wax and send it off to various middle men. They repair equipment, build frames and deliver honey to farmers and ranchers.
The latter chore seems to be one of Dean’s favorites. “I’ve got some great landowners. They’re wonderful to work with. They’re spread around in places as separated as Utica and Hobson, Hilger and Lewistown, Melville and Lavina.”
The farthest hive site is 100 miles away. “Everywhere we go, we have to drive.” Which obviously adds to the cost of honey, especially with rising gas prices.
Dean and employees check their hives regularly and add new supers every 10 days or so until a hive stands 6 or 7 supers high. They eventually pull off supers for extraction of honey and can get 30 to 40 lb. of honey from each super. They always leave at least two supers per hive.
A break-even year for the apiary requires each hive to produce around 50 lb. of honey. Dean expects them to average around 100 lobs this year.
The apiary sells honey to packers spread from Chicago and Kansas to Los Angeles. Thompson expects to ship somewhere between 100,000 and a million pounds of honey this year. (A generous spread. He’s not quite predicting how much honey the apiary will produce.) Even though it seems to be a good year, like the rest of the farmers in the area, beekeepers are catching up from years of drought.
When raising bees, “You can’t have too much rain.” The apiary’s best year was 1997 when the area got 20 inches of rain.
Thompson reiterated, time and again, “It’s a farm thing, we do here.” Dean considers himself a farmer. He started working for Steve Parks in 1987 shortly after graduating from Harlowton High School. Steve had purchased the apiary from Larry Budge, who had owned the business “for as long as I can remember” in 1984.
Steve E. Parks Apiary has two other plants in Fairview, MT, and Palo Cedro, CA. The Fairview plant is comparable to the Harlowton operation, while the Palo Cedro unit focuses mainly on pollination work and producing queen bees. The local apiary can have up to 10,000 hives active at one time. Dean goes down to the California plant in February to place hives in almond orchards and also spends some time in Washington working in apple orchards.
During my tour of the apiary, I noticed a sign on each super which said DIGITALLY PROTECTED. Apparently, theft can be a problem in almond orchards in California.
Dean also mentioned that there has been a shortage in recent time of bees for pollination purposes. A mite infestation has caused problems around the country, but has not affected this area to a great degree.
Asked about the life of a bee, Dean said, “Bees really don’t have individual lives. They all work together.” Apparently, it’s hard to distinguish one from another. They all know what their jobs are and do them. Nonetheless, a single bee has a short life span - of a few weeks, but can live up to four months in cool weather.
The life of an apiarist is obviously busy. Thompson is the proud father of two children, Jack and Ryann. “I like to go to Nascar races, ice fish, and golf.” Dean is a one-term councilman and has been fire chief for a year. He shares duties with Paul Painter. Paul handles the financial end of the FD and Dean takes care of the mechanical aspects.
Interestingly, Dean’s father, Richard Egebakken, co-owns Bear Luv- Un Honey with his wife Julie. The Egebakkens buy honey from Dean and get all the credit for the apiary’s great honey. “But, we do all the work,” says Thompson with a smile. Their operation leases space in the apiary’s building.
Bear Luv- Un Honey was purchased approximately ten years ago from Montana Fruit and Nut Company. Retired sheriff Richard Egebakken works as the Justice of the Peace two days a week and spends the rest at his honey company. Julie takes care of the paper work.
Bear Luv- Un Honey sells to grocery stores here and in Billings, does mail order and ships to gift shops in the western USA. They add value to local honey to the tune of 30 to 40,000 lb. a year. Summer, tourist season and Christmas are their best times. Bear Luv ‘M Honey specializes in huckleberry and other flavors as well as creamed honeys. They also do private labeling for other businesses.
Beekeeping is another kind of farming - and honey production, a fascinating business - which starts the end of May in Montana and runs until it freezes or things dry up. “They’re done then,” says Dean Thompson.
So, is this story.